City planning students gain critical perspective on the carceral state

The Carceral State, a course offered through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, explores the issue of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania.

Nearly 100,000 Pennsylvanians are under correctional control, earning the state an incarceration rate above the national average—and well above the rate seen in most countries around the world, including Russia. What this means for Philadelphians is the subject of a spring course offered through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and taught by Lisa Servon, Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of city and regional planning, that brought together students from Weitzman, the School of Social Policy and Practice, and the Wharton School.

Sidewalk entrance for Philadelphia Municipal Court with plaque at gate.

Servon has been researching the links between mass incarceration, financial “citizenship”, and criminal justice since 2018. For The Carceral State course, she asked students to use qualitative and quantitative data to bring attention to the lived experiences of hundreds of Philadelphia families. The syllabus combines readings, asset mapping, spatial data mapping, and community engagement to suggest how people have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

One of the most dramatic findings is just how disproportionately the rate of incarceration is felt in certain neighborhoods, where it has also impeded equitable development. In Philadelphia, five of the city’s 86 zip codes pay 30% of bail money collected. Of those five, Servon and her students focused on zip code 19124, which encompasses the Frankford neighborhood in north Philadelphia.

Through the course, students were introduced to the Philadelphia Bail Fund (PBF), an organization that posts bail for people who cannot afford it, and Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations (Concilio), a community development corporation that originally served Philadelphia’s Latino population but has expanded its work in family welfare through youth programs and services for crime victims.

With the help of Concilio and six high-school students, one group of Servon’s students used asset mapping to study the Frankford neighborhood’s social infrastructure, while others used ArcGIS to spatially contextualize data on demographics and incarceration.

Servon’s students also visited the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice to observe courtroom proceedings. Charlie Townsley, a Weitzman planning student who is also the teaching assistant for the course, saw 17 arraignments over separate days, where judges set an average bail of $99,400. He came away, he says, struck by the complexity of crime and punishment in the constraints of a system prone to structural racism, and the everyday negotiations of value-systems within a bureaucracy.

Read more at Weitzman News.