Vera Institute of Justice’s “In Our Backyards” Community Grant Advances Criminal Justice Reform in PA Through Urban/Rural Collaboration

Evaluation of program implemented by the Pennsylvania Prison Society and Urban Rural Action in Philadelphia and Adams County shows “substantial value” in advancing reforms and bridging divides

NEW YORK, NY – An innovative program promoting criminal justice reform across the urban/rural divide in Pennsylvania has generated impressive results, according to participating community members in Philadelphia and Adams County. The “Consensus-Building for Incarceration” (CBIR) program was an eight-month collaboration implemented by the Pennsylvania Prison Society and Urban Rural Action, funded through the Vera Institute of Justice’s inaugural “In Our Backyards” community grant program.

Participants in CBIR were a diverse group of 27 community members, criminal justice reform advocates, professionals, students, and retirees split between Philadelphia and rural Adams County, PA, with political views across the ideological spectrum. They met over six days in September and October in Philadelphia and Gettysburg to increase their familiarity with incarceration data and trends in both communities; build consensus on statewide reforms to reduce incarceration; develop and implement projects to reduce incarceration, improve conditions for people in jail, and strengthen re-entry services; and build relationships among participants through shared meals, homestays, and other social activities.

Seventy-four percent of CBIR participants said this collaboration across geographic and ideological divides had “substantial value” (the other 26% said it had “some value”) for advancing criminal justice reform. Sixty-eight percent said it had “substantial value” for bridging divides in America; 32% said it had “some value.”

“When people think about mass incarceration, they typically believe it’s an urban problem. We know, however, that small and rural communities across the country are driving growth in both jails and prisons,” said Vera’s Sarah Minion, campaign associate for the In Our Backyards initiative. “It’s exciting to see people from vastly different places within the same state say ‘we have a lot to learn from each other,’ and then come together to affirm that we can’t end mass incarceration unless we do so in every community, and that consensus around what that might look like is achievable.”

During the workshops, CBIR participants developed key areas to focus their efforts: reducing commissary pricing in the Philadelphia jails, strengthening re-entry services and curtailing the use of pretrial detention in Adams County, and launching a statewide campaign to end the detention of young people in adult facilities.

Participants greatly increased their familiarity with the criminal justice system by learning from key experts, including those who have spent much of their lives behind bars, engaging with public officials, touring a correctional facility, grappling with data on incarceration rates, and learning from each other’s perspectives and experiences with the criminal justice system. Seventy-nine percent of program participants correctly answered at least three of four post-program questions about incarceration data in Philadelphia and Adams County, compared to only 32% in the program’s start-of-program baseline survey.

“In a moment in which disinformation and half-truths have currency, this was a powerful opportunity to deeply engage community members and policy makers with the often-shocking facts about their criminal legal systems,” noted Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards. “Armed with this solid understanding, reform is happening.”

“This is exactly the type of program that needs to be replicated across the country to address mass incarceration and other issues that impact all communities,” said Urban Rural Action Executive Director Joseph Bubman. “Collaboration among ordinary people from different types of communities can help transform the divisiveness that plagues our country into local action that builds relationships and addresses real challenges.”

CBIR is one of 11 In Our Backyards Community Grants that support organizing, research, and public education around reducing mass incarceration in small cities and rural communities.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

For more information, visit

About Urban Rural Action

Urban Rural Action advances urban/rural collaboration to address issues that impact all communities, such as mass incarceration, gun violence, and climate change.

For more information, visit

About the Pennsylvania Prison Society

We maintain a statewide prison monitor volunteer corps and are the unbiased source about what is happening behind Pennsylvania prison wall. Our mission is to advocate for humane prisons and a rational approach to criminal justice.

For more information, visit

Related Content