PHILADELPHIA (May 26, 2022) – Two years after police killings of Black people sparked massive civil unrest across the country, people who were arrested and charged with non-violent offenses related to the unrest have successfully completed diversion programs, leaving them with no record of charges that would inhibit employment, education, housing, and other opportunities to be full and productive members of their communities.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old father of five, was murdered by then-Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, sparking mass uprisings against police brutality and injustice in Philly, across the nation, and around the world. Five months later, on October 26, 2020, Philadelphia Police Department officers shot and killed Walter Wallace, Jr., a 27-year-old father of nine whose family had called 911. In total, civil unrest was recorded on 28 days in the second half of 2020, and 834 criminal cases were opened at a time when most court functions were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the majority of mass demonstrations in Philadelphia during these two time periods were peaceful, in some instances, businesses and communities were vandalized and burglarized. Residents of affected communities largely supported calls for racial justice and police accountability, but simultaneously demanded and deserved justice for harms done by fellow community members. More than 80% of those arrested and charged during the unrest were Black, in a city where 40% of residents are Black. A simplistic, wholly punitive response to these cases would only compound the inequities that Americans were protesting.
Community members therefore collaborated on a response that would deliver accountability without compounding inequities and injustices, as many people arrested during these time periods were mostly law-abiding residents of neighborhoods already damaged by decades of disinvestment and racist criminalization.
All cases that involved firearms were prosecuted normally, as were cases involving serious and violent offenses and cases where a defendant was later re-arrested for a serious offense. After individualized and careful review by prosecutors, 85% percent of defendants arrested for offenses related to the civil unrest, all for non-violent offenses, were approved by the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) and the courts for diversion, including a restorative justice program through which defendants and victims processed trauma, healing, and achieved accountability together, within community, and outside of a courthouse or prison.
The Restorative Response Program (RRP), developed by Troy Wilson of the Up Against the Law Legal Collective and the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia (MCCP) Restorative Cities Initiative and administered in collaboration with the Defender Association, is the first major application of restorative justice in Philadelphia. Defendants who successfully completed RRP requirements had charges withdrawn by the DAO and arrest records expunged with court approval.
Rev. Donna Jones, a restorative justice facilitator and leader of the MCCP Restorative Cities Initiative, said, “Completion of these programs delivered accountability and community healing that the status quo criminal legal system rarely achieves. The promising results of the Restorative Response Program show that through teaching and training on the principles of restorative education, restorative economics, and restorative justice, we can build resilient communities that desire and achieve peace, safety, and justice throughout Philadelphia.”
“This sweeping use of restorative justice and its impressive success in terms of reducing recidivism and enabling people who have violated the law to be accountable without breaking them and their capacity to lead productive lives is proof of concept that restorative justice will work more generally in appropriate cases both in adult and juvenile court,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “The criminal legal system should hold people who harm others accountable, while producing outcomes that increase public safety by strengthening communities. Incapacitating people when it is unnecessary disables people from working, owning homes, providing for their families, paying taxes that support our schools, and otherwise thriving in ways that make us safer and improve Philadelphia.”
“The Restorative Response program is a great example of what can be achieved when there’s true collaboration between the justice system and the community,” Chief Defender Keisha Hudson said. “This success we’re seeing also shows that Restorative Justice is more than a program – it’s an effective way to address the conditions that lead to justice system involvement without saddling our citizens with a criminal record.”
The DAO DATA Lab has produced a timeline of 2020 uprising events showing where incidents were reported, arrests occurred, and how cases were handled in the interest of justice and equity: https://tinyurl.com/2020CivilUnrest. Summer 2020 arrests were concentrated in Center City, Olney, and the lower Northeast, while Fall 2020 arrests were concentrated in West Philadelphia, where Wallace was killed.
People arrested in relation to the two periods of civil unrest and who were approved by the courts for RRP were required to complete education sessions, programming such as job training and other community re-engagement opportunities, and to participate in MCCP restorative justice circles. People harmed by the unrest including business owners and workers participated in the restorative justice circles, and when applicable received restitution from defendants. Affected business also received $1.62 million in Restore & Reopen grants through a partnership with the Commerce Department and the Merchants Fund.
For the majority of arrests related to the protests, the complaining witness was a national chain business. Lack of interest by big box stores in prosecution – which can include requiring workers to appear in court as witnesses at a loss of pay – frequently results in such cases being dismissed or withdrawn, including when those arrests have nothing to do with public unrest.
But 18% of cases during the Wallace uprisings involved locally owned businesses, and 28% of cases during the Floyd uprisings involved locally owned businesses. The harms inflicted on small business owners and workers who lost pay had ripple effects across communities, as access to prescription medications or fresh produce worsened in areas with an already inequitable distribution of amenities.
The RRP participants were overwhelmingly residents of Philadelphia (86%). Four percent had been homeless at time of arrest. The defendants who completed diversion for civil unrest-related cases had a far lower rate of recidivism (12%) to date than the 53% of people who are traditionally sentenced to incarceration or probation for commercial burglaries. These results align with evidence that diversion in appropriate cases – which holds people accountable without resulting in a criminal conviction on their record – produces far better results for community safety than traditional punitive prosecution.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the 3rd District where Walter Wallace was killed, said: “The unrest we saw in the summer of 2020 was the result of immense pain and anger brought on by decades of systemic racism as well as violence experienced by Black people at the hands of police. But the harm inflicted on our small businesses, the lifeblood of our community, during this time was a tragedy as well. Seeing our small businesses wounded during the civil unrest, while already buckling under the immense economic hardship of earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, was devastating. I thank the District Attorney, small business owners, and community members for participating in this restorative justice circle. These circles prove incarceration and punitive measures are not the be-all-end-all of justice.”
“The uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality revealed the anguish and suffering of working-class communities of color, and their desire for justice,” Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large) added. “I commend District Attorney Krasner for his use of diversion programs, where appropriate, instead of perpetuating cycles of harm. As a restorative justice practitioner, I strongly believe in addressing the root causes of harm to prevent it from happening again – not just punishing its symptoms. This holistic approach to public safety is how we will deliver real justice to our communities and heal our neighborhoods from decades of disinvestment, structural racism, and mass incarceration.”
Diversion programming was developed to address people as whole individuals who are valued in their communities. Community service partners included organizations such as Frontline Dads, Broadstreet Ministry, Chosen 300 Ministries, and PAR Recycle Works, an electronics recycling nonprofit led by formerly incarcerated individuals. Participants were also required to attend workshops on restorative justice and education sessions on the history of non-violent protest in America.
CONTACT:[email protected]Jane Roh, 215-686-8711,
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.