Jack O’Neill: Fresh Face Brings Fresh Ideas to the Primary With Last Minute Campaign
Jack O’Neill is the most recent candidate to enter to race for Philadelphia District Attorney, having formally declared his intention to run in the middle of March.
Born in Philadelphia and educated at J.R. Masterman High School, O’Neill entered the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) straight out of law school. He spent next decade in the DAO, concentrating on issues involving domestic abuse, sexual assault and homicide before going into private practice in February 2016. O’Neill feels his recent tenure and close relationships in the DAO is what separates him from his fellow candidates.
“I have tremendous respect for everybody in this race,” O’Neill said in an interview. “I know them all. But we’re running for District Attorney in a District Attorney’s Office that is in serious crisis. The next person who comes into the District Attorney’s Office needs to understand the office in detailed, intricate ways. They need to know what is needed to fix that District Attorney’s Office right away. There’s not going to be time for someone to come in and learn how things work and get caught up on all the changes that have happened over the last 10 years.”
The changes O’Neill is referring to include a litany of reform programs, implemented in the DAO in the last eight years, many of which deal with the way the city handles people that have been incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. O’Neill believes incarceration rates are one of the biggest problems facing Philadelphia at present.
“There are currently over 20 diversionary programs aimed at getting people out of jail and avoiding putting people in jail,” he said. “They’re great programs that need to be improved and expanded. They need the full support of the next DA. Not only do we have too many people in jail, we have a lot of people in jail that just don’t need to be.”
Examples of these programs include:
- Accelerated misdemeanor programs: geared toward getting treatment for people arrested for personal-use levels of drugs.
- Drug treatment court: provides help for people who deal drugs because they are addicted to drugs.
- The Choice is Yours: people who deal drugs because they don’t have a better way to make a living.
- Future Forward: offering college degrees at CCP rather than prosecution for nonviolent felony arrests.
“I love this program and would want to see it expanded by additionally offering training for skilled labor jobs,” O’Neill said of the Future Forward program. “We can offer these people a better choice than jail time.”
Bail reform is a big issue in this race, and it’s an issue that O’Neill is passionate about. He believes that the current bail reform program needs to be expanded dramatically. “[We need to] make sure we don’t have people sitting in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail,” he said. “I would take this program a lot further, in which the DAO would just reccomend zero bail for most of the people who fall under the current qualifications for ‘bail review.’”
O’Neill believes that reforming our penal system will have a direct impact on Philadelphia’s communities. “It does a great thing for communities as a whole because they can see that the DAO and the police department and City Council are doing what’s best for people rather than just warehousing them in jail,” he said. “This promotes confidence in the criminal justice system. These programs direct people toward positive things rather than towards more jail. It’s devastating to a family when a relative ends up in jail. It’s so much better for these families if their relative is directed toward something positive.”
O’Neill says that over the last eight years, the sexual assault unit and the domestic violence unit has been deprioritized within the DAO. “As a person who worked in both units it has been my platform, it has been my passion and intention to make sure that we give the support back to these units so they can work with organizations like Women Against Rape and Woman Against Abuse as well as working with City Council and the police to make the DAO where survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault feel safe, feel supported and feel like they have a strong ally in the DAO.”