Eagles' players meet with Sen. Wagner, others to discuss criminal justice reform

David Weissman
York Dispatch

Fresh off a Monday Night Football victory that gave them the best record in the NFL, three Philadelphia Eagles players quickly turned their attention to Harrisburg, where they met with several state legislators Tuesday, Oct. 24, to discuss criminal justice reform.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, flanked by teammates Torrey Smith and Chris Long, said that in the course of working with youth in their communities, athletes have struggled to change the environment that continues to create inequities.

Sens. Scott Wagner (left) and Anthony Williams met with Philadelphia Eagles players (left to right) Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long and Torrey Smith on Tuesday, Oct. 24 in Harrisburg to discuss criminal justice reform. (Photo courtesy of Ben Bowers)

"One of the things we've seen when it comes to contributing to poverty and lack of opportunity in some of our communities has pushed us to focus on our criminal justice system," Jenkins said.

At the top of their legislative wish list is the passage of "Clean Slate" legislation, which seeks to make Pennsylvania the nation's first state to automatically seal criminal records for minor, nonviolent offenses.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Delaware and Philadelphia counties, would create a process by which nonviolent misdemeanor convictions are automatically sealed after a person has gone 10 years without any additional violations.

It would not apply to certain offenses, including crimes involving firearms, sexual offenders and cruelty to animals.

More:Anthem activism: Eagles' Jenkins protests to support Sen. Scott Wagner bill

More:Wagner leading charge on sealing nonviolent criminal records

Smith said he has a personal connection to this legislation because his mother was a convicted felon who worked multiple low-income jobs because no one else would hire her because of her criminal record.

With the help of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Smith's mother had her record expunged after 10 years, and she quickly found a high-paying job, he said.

"Plenty of men and women who served their debt to society deserve a second chance," Smith said. "(Criminal records are) keeping people in poverty (and) keeping people hopeless."

The trio of players met with Wagner and Williams Tuesday to stress the importance of getting the "Clean Slate" bill passed and thank them for introducing it, Jenkins said.

The bill unanimously passed out of the state Senate in June and currently sits in the House Judiciary Committee.

Wagner said the meeting was productive and stressed that the goal of criminal justice reform is not a Republican or Democratic issue.

"A lot of inmates leave (jail), and there's no jobs for them; that's a problem," Wagner said. "We need to help them while they're inside the prison with training, so they're ready to work when they get out."

Wagner added that inmates should be pushed toward trades such as electrical manufacturing because those are good-paying jobs, and Pennsylvania is currently facing a skilled labor crisis.

Long, who recently announced he'd be donating his entire 2017 base salary to various educational charities, said it's easy to get behind criminal justice reform on a humane level, but it will also help increase our society's efficiency.

"We can all benefit from something where more people are getting second chances, less people are disenfranchised," Long said. "It doesn't have to affect you to care about it."

Anthem protests: One topic that was not discussed, according to Wagner, was the controversial protests occurring across the NFL during the pregame playing of the national anthem.

The protests began last season with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — a former teammate of Smith — at first sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem.

When asked why he wasn't standing, Kaepernick said he refused to show pride in the flag of a country that oppresses people of color and specifically pointed to recent police shootings of black people.

Philadelphia Eagles players, owner Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles' President Don Smolenski, and a Philadelphia police officer, stand for the national anthem before an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Philadelphia. Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins, No. 27, raises his fist next to Lurie. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Many other NFL players have since joined Kaepernick's protest in some way, and politicians including President Donald Trump have been critical of what they see as disrespectful to veterans.

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg, even went so far as to propose a Senate resolution condemning the NFL players' "anti-American demonstrations."

Wagner, who is running for governor, wrote a message on his campaign website urging all Americans to stand during the anthem.

"It can only be out of tragic misconception about what the flag and the national anthem symbolize that one could fathom the idea of rejecting them," Wagner wrote in his message.

Jenkins stands during the anthem, but he raises his fist in the air as a way to bring attention to the need for racial equality and "much-needed reform to our criminal justice system," he has said.

Jenkins's social media pages are littered with commenters criticizing his protests, but he said that for every person telling him to find a different way to protest, he has another person supporting him.

The mass attention these protests have received has helped him and other players around the league highlight the work they're doing, such as Tuesday's visit to Harrisburg, Jenkins said.

Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, was also among a group of legislators that met with the Eagles players.

She said there was a lot of support among members present at the meeting to push forward on "Clean Slate" legislation and other criminal justice reform efforts. Hill-Evans added that she was appreciative of Jenkins, Smith and Long for coming to Harrisburg so quickly after their Monday night game.

"It's obvious this is important to them," she said.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.