HARRISBURG, Pa. — On paper, Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from a predominantly white conservative district, and Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from a predominantly black Philadelphia district, would be considered an unlikely alignment. If they sat on a cable-news panel they’d be expected to yell and point fingers at each other over partisan slights. On social media, the idea of them being friends would be considered an abomination worthy of canceling them both.
But since 2018, they have been working together on criminal-justice reform — and making real change happen.
Two days before Christmas, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted an overwhelming 193-4 to pass a bill they both sponsored, helping former convicts get professional licenses. As a result, those who took job training in prison for professions like cosmetology, nursing, funeral services or accounting can now get credentials once they’re released, on a restricted basis. (Republicans hold a 17-seat majority in the House of Representatives.)
Both Delozier and Harris say they were attracted to the issue because of mass incarceration’s devastating impact on their very different communities. “Criminal-justice reform is not a Republican or a Democrat issue,” said Delozier flatly.
“It’s a common-sense issue. It’s a people issue, and it’s also a fiscal issue. We’re dealing with only so many dollars within our state budget, and I would rather have somebody who has served their time and done what has been asked of them to be able to come out and know they’re going to be part of our communities again,” she said.
That can’t happen if they end up in prison because they hit roadblocks every time they try to better themselves, according to Delozier.
“I don’t want them back in prison at $40,000 a year to house them for something that we can mitigate,” she said. “Let them find a job. Let them get out in our communities, be part of their families again, earn wages, pay taxes and be part of society.”
National statistics show that 68 percent of people that come out of prison will be arrested again in the first three years, said Delozier. “One of the leading reasons for that is not having employment.”
Harris and Delozier are proof that, on a very local level, politicians from different parties can come together to fix a common problem through careful discussion and deliberation, unlike the bail-reform initiative in New York, which was pushed through by partisan lawmakers who failed to consider its ill effects.
In fact, the two Pennsylvanians hope their achievements can be used as a model for other states.
“There have been a lot of things that Sheryl Delozier and myself got done beginning in 2018 with the Clean Slate law,” Harris said of their groundbreaking, first-in-the nation bill that went into effect last summer, effectively pardoning an estimated 30 million Pennsylvanians living with criminal records. The law automatically seals the records of people with any low-level crimes, summary offenses or charges that did not result in convictions — as long as they’ve never had another charge in the past 10 years.
Since then they have been working on probation reform, the professional licensing reform that just passed as well as preventative measures to keep people from getting locked up in the first place.
Through it all, Harris says they’ve developed a deep respect for each other, and a friendship.
“We’ve spent a significant amount of time together over the last two or three years working on this. And while I may vehemently disagree with her on certain issues, I do not question her motives. And I don’t question her character as a person. She’s a mother, she’s a wife, she loves her family. She loves her husband, who was a police officer. She likes to laugh and joke at the pranks that her husband’s police department plays on him,” Harris says admiringly.
“I look at some of her experience based off of where she comes from. And I don’t begrudge her or I don’t judge her for that,” he says, adding with a broad smile: “That doesn’t mean that I won’t fight like hell on other issues we disagree on, but we should all do it from a place of respect and be better examples for other people who want to serve their communities.”
Salena Zito is the author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”
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