Philadelphia has been awarded a competitive $3.5 million grant to fund a plan to cut its prison population by 34 percent during the next three years.
The MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge Grant will be used to bolster a comprehensive reform plan that aims to reduce Philadelphia’s incarcerated population and address racial bias across the criminal justice system.
Officials said if the reform is successful, it could serve as a national model.
Philadelphia’s winning proposal was a result of a collaboration between the city’s criminal justice partners, Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Prison System, the District Attorney and the city’s court system.
President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper said Philadelphia will focus on implementing the plan aimed at reducing the prison population and reducing ethnic disparities while improving the justice system’s data capacity to monitor its progress in reaching these goals.
“We will address the over incarceration of pretrial defendants by fundamentally changing the way arraignment decisions are made and the pretrial defendants are supervised in the community,” Woods-Skipper said during a press conference this week.
Despite recent system improvements and a steady reduction in the jail population, Philadelphia still has the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country.
The city’s prison system now holds about 7,400 inmates. According to officials, 60 percent of the city’s jail population is comprised of individuals awaiting trial, the vast majority of whom were detained for nonviolent offenses.
Seventy-two percent of the individuals awaiting trial are African American.
The city’s reform plan with six strategies aimed at reducing the overall number of inmates. Strategies include the creation of a pretrial risk tool which will aid in reducing the incarceration of pretrial defendants, boosting the efficiency in case processing, new strategies for parole violation, reducing racial and ethnic disparities, addressing special populations and improving data capacity.
The plan will rely on diversion programs, alternatives to cash bail and early interventions by public defenders, police and mental-health professionals.
George Mosee, chief deputy officer of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office says more than 40 percent of their misdemeanor cases are diverted to alternative programs.
“Today’s milestone will provide us with the resources to expand our diversion efforts to more offenders who can benefit from the intensive hands on services provided outside the prison walls without sacrificing public safety,” Mosee said.
Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia said the reform effort will help enhance pre-trial representation.
“For the defender, this will allow us to bring a new focus to the early stages of contact with the justice system by enhancing our pre-trial representation,” Bradford-Grey said. “In doing so, we will ensure that a bail commissioner has all the necessary facts about a person to make a well-informed decision that helps ensure that people arrested don’t lose job opportunities, their homes, necessary health and medical benefits, necessary mental health coverage and the ability to care for their families. We do not want to make people more desperate by use of our prisons systems. We want to make it more equitable for people to get the treatment that they need.”
During the press conference, Mayor Jim Kenney highlighted the link between the city’s poverty rate and criminal activity.
“There is no happenstance that the level of our poverty at 26 percent mirrors the level of incarceration, especially among young Black males and young Hispanic males,” Kenney said. “The level of opportunities in their neighborhoods for education, for job training, for drug treatment, for anything — leads people down this road.
“Folks cannot get what they need in the way of drug treatment, job training and social skill training behind bars,” he added. “They need to get it at a place where people are supportive, helpful and enthusiastic about their recovery, their redemption and their becoming great citizens of our city.”
Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, said that reforms are needed however he is concerned about where defenders will live while they are waiting to go to court. He said many offenders don’t have relatives or other options where they can reside while waiting for their cases to go to court.
“That kind of question has to be asked and has to be answered. Whatever diversionary program that they put together they are going to need places to house those folks,” Jacobs said.
The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation chose Philadelphia from among 191 applicants for what is its largest justice reform award this year.
Philadelphia is one of 11 jurisdictions that will receive grants over two years to reduce their jail populations and address racial and ethnic disparities in their justices systems.
“The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. “The thoughtful plans and demonstrable political will give us confidence that these jurisdictions will show that change is possible in even the most intractable justice-related challenges in cities, counties, and states across the country.”