Civil Rights

The Commonwealth Foundation reshapes the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania


The Commonwealth Foundation, an Atlas Network partner based in Philadelphia, is successfully using media, research, and educational outreach to reduce recidivism, help offenders reintegrate into society, and improve services for people caught in Pennsylvania’s troubled criminal justice system.

The Fighting Chance Philly initiative, which Commonwealth has been working on since early 2019, led to the recent passage of two new laws, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and the Clean Slate Act, which are designed to reduce prison time for non-violent misdemeanor offenders, eliminate the stigma of former non-violent offenders, reduce a backlog in parole, and provide better services to local probation departments.

Commonwealth advocated for their Fighting Chance Philly initiative through a media blitz, leveraging a variety of platforms in order to build local support for a restructured criminal justice policy. “We put most of our allocated resources towards a mix of targeted public messaging, including traditional and social media advertising,” explained Commonwealth’s government affairs specialist, Kevin Kane. “These became essential features of our issue campaign which, along with the lawmaker relationships that our government affairs team built with Philadelphia lawmakers, ultimately helped push the legislation through.”

In 2012, Commonwealth’s research and educational outreach was instrumental in helping pass the first Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which resulted in an immediate decrease in Pennsylvania’s prison population by over 5,600 and a steady decline every year after. Kane believes the passing of the JRI2 will build off of the success of JRI and have a similar impact, noting that the new law will benefit an estimated 2,800 people per year who would have spent overtime in jail because of backlogs. According to Kane, 180,000 probationers in Pennsylvania will now receive better services as savings are reinvested in local probation departments, and more individuals with non-violent drug offenses will receive prison alternatives.

Additionally, the Clean Slate Act will seal criminal records for non-violent misdemeanor offenses, giving former inmates a better chance of finding employment and reducing the likelihood of recidivism. Pennsylvania, along with the Commonwealth Foundation, was the first in the nation to pass the Clean Slate Act, which is now being considered by states throughout the country, including Connecticut, California, Utah, and South Carolina.

“It’s been remarkable to see the value of Atlas Network’s reputation in their endorsement of our work,” continued Kane. “The grants, as well as our close relationship, has raised our visibility and credibility with business and community leaders, enabling us to bring diverse supporters together and accomplish this bipartisan victory.”

The Commonwealth Foundation received a Joining Up to Minimize Poverty Grant from Atlas Network in support of their Fighting Chance Philly Initiative.