At age 13, Jon Kelly was in and out of Philadelphia’s juvenile hall for fighting and selling crack cocaine. At age 19, he was arrested for his part in the robbery and killing of a drug dealer.
He calls his reduced sentence of six to 20 years “a miracle.” Equally miraculous was his transformation in prison: Jon read the New Testament and encountered God for the first time. Then, he dedicated his life to helping others.
Now, at age 37, he’s the pastor of Chicago West Bible Church. He spends his weekdays working with youth and gang members, weeknights with his wife and two boys, and his Sundays in the pulpit. Jon believes these three elements—service, faith, and family—are the key to leaving the justice system for good.
“I don't believe God allowed me to leave prison so I could kick up my feet and enjoy life,” he says.
Jon is no longer behind bars, but he’s still subject to Pennsylva- nia’s justice system. Despite his subsequent seminary degrees and eight years of marriage, despite his full-time ministry and his volunteer service alongside Chicago PD, Jon is still on Philadel- phia’s probation rolls through an interstate compact. That means his schedule, travel, and residency options are limited until 2023— along with a host of other requirements and restrictions.
“The probation officers I’ve worked with since 2017 have peti- tioned three times for my early release from probation,” he ex- plains. “But nobody’s willing to risk signing off—it’s a career-ending move if I were to re-offend.”
Former prisoners like Jon Kelly who have turned their lives around deserve better than empty promises of case-by-case leniency. The constraints on “perpetual probation” in the recently advanced HB 1555 take Pennsylvania part of the way there—hence the bill’s bipartisan support and high-profile backers. But even this bill has been amended as a compro- mise with “tough-on-crime” lawmakers.
“The issue isn’t a simple one,” Jon acknowledges. “The question is, how do you make the system work for people like me who are
already rehabilitated, already giving back—without opening cracks for dangerous prisoners to slip through?”
As somebody still under the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania law enforcement, Jon was glad to read about the passage of SB 500 and 501, which formed part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2 (JRI 2) package. The first JRI had a measurable impact on recidivism, causing a decline in Pennsylvania’s prison population—and JRI 2 is predicted to make even more of a difference.
Transforming lives through rehabilitation is key. That’s why in his prison reform advocacy, Jon’s main passion is providing resources and relationships to help former prisoners to reenter society. “Not everyone has a safe environment with relatives or friends to go back to,” he explains. “Not everyone has an uncle who can get them a job at the local hardware store, you know? Sometimes it’s family members using drugs, friends in gangs, no money to pay restitutions, no rides to work or church or meetings.”
In 2018, Pennsylvania saw a small breakthrough when new legislation prevented the suspension of driver’s licenses for certain nonviolent offenses. But that barrier to entry was just the tip of the iceberg for most who’ve been incarcerated, Jon points out.
“People don’t want to spend more money on recidivism pre- vention,” he concedes. “But the question isn’t whether to raise spending. It’s whether to spend $40,000+ per year on an inmate, or to spend a fraction of that helping them get a job instead.”
Jon doesn’t believe in a silver bullet policy that will solve all the problems in the prison system. With so many drug and mental health issues and other unique needs at stake, he’s not expecting a perfect system that can account for every situation.
But that’s no reason to lose hope, he says. “At least we’re starting to see unity on this issue—whatever your race, social status, religious beliefs, or political party, people are starting to agree that we need reform.”
He’s right: it’s exciting to see real reform coming after many years, largely thanks to advocates and shining examples like Jon Kelly.