Pew Study: Philadelphia's Jail Population Dropped Dramatically

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A new study from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that Philadelphia's jail population decreased dramatically last year, due primarily to reductions among the number of individuals held pretrial and those held for alleged violations of their probation or parole.

These declines appear to be largely the result of new practices and procedures adopted by the various agencies that comprise the city's criminal justice system—with the goal of making the system more efficient.

From 2009 to 2010, the annual average daily population in the Philadelphia Prison System fell 11 percent, down from 9,321 to 8,273. Early in 2011, the population dropped below 7,700. The monthly average crept back up to 8,048 in June.

“The joint reform efforts of Philadelphia's criminal justice leaders are behind much of the decline in the city's jail population,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, senior associate at the Philadelphia Research Initiative and author of the report. “These officials recognize that, through efficiencies, they can do a lot to manage the size of the inmate population without risking safety. And they think there is more to be done.”

Philadelphia's jail population remains high on a per-capita basis compared to other jurisdictions. For the year ending June 30, 2010, the city had the fifth-highest rate of incarceration among the 50 jurisdictions in the country with the largest jail populations, according to an analysis of data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Pew study, Philadelphia's Less Crowded, Less Costly Jails: Taking Stock of a Year of Change and the Challenges That Remain, is a follow-up to a Pew report issued in May 2010 called Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions.

The jail population is made up primarily of three kinds of inmates—those held pretrial, those brought in for alleged violations of the terms of their probation or parole, and those convicted of crimes and serving sentences of less than two years. In the report, the size of each group is measured in bed-days, with a bed-day defined as one inmate staying one day.

In 2010, the pretrial population accounted for 49 percent of the decrease in bed-days consumed, mostly due to the following factors:

  • A modest decline in the number of arrests, which parallels a corresponding drop in violent crime.
  • Reductions in the overall severity of charges leveled against the accused. This has been due in part to a new approach to deciding what charges to pursue in individual cases, implemented by District Attorney R. Seth Williams, now in his second year in office. When initial charges are less severe, lower bail may be imposed or none at all, resulting in fewer individuals being held pretrial.
  • Creation of new programs to divert some less serious cases from the court system, with individuals often being fined or made to perform community service. Among these initiatives are the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP) and the Small Amount of Marijuana Program (SAM).
  • A decrease in the number of admissions to jail on bench warrants, which call for the detention of individuals who fail to show up for court dates. One factor in the decline was not the result of any new practice or procedure. A computer problem caused thousands of new warrants not to show up in police checks for several months, meaning that people during that period were not picked up on warrants who otherwise would have been.

Thirty-nine percent of the overall drop in the jail population came from a reduction in bed-days consumed by those who were alleged to have violated the terms of their probation or parole. This decrease among violators of probation and parole is due to shorter incarcera¬tions caused by a streamlining of the court process.

The sentenced population accounted for the remaining 12 percent of the drop, with lengths of jail-stays down here as well. This appears to be the continuing effect of a change in state law that has forced certain sentenced inmates to serve time in state prisons instead of the city jails. Increased use of alternative sentencing programs like electronic monitoring and mental health court may also have contributed to this decline.

Though much has happened since the publication of Pew's initial report, several policy options mentioned in that document for reducing the jail population have not been acted upon, even though many officials said they wanted to pursue them.

One of those options is the creation of a day-reporting center for nonviolent individuals who would otherwise be in jail. Another is the updating of the bail guidelines that help determine who gets held pretrial and for how long. The bail guidelines are widely considered outdated and ineffective; in New York City and Washington, D.C., where similar guidelines are revised frequently, a higher percentage of defendants have been permitted to remain in the community pretrial than in Philadelphia and more of them have shown up for court.

“My hopes are that the progress will continue,” said Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla. “But all the work isn't done, and we could easily slide back. We need to keep our focus and keep working at it. I am encouraged because for the first time in over 30 years, progress was not the result of court order but collaboration.”

While the savings recorded by the Philadelphia Prison System have been significant—its budget is $10 million less than it was three years ago—they are relatively small in percentage terms (4 percent) compared to the overall reduction in the jail population. For there to be substantially more savings, the population will have to fall enough to enable the city to close an entire facility or a section of one.

Officials say that one of their goals for the next few years is to close the House of Correction, the oldest of the jails and the most expensive to maintain. In addition, they say that bringing the system's overall population down to 6,500 is do¬able without jeopardizing public safety, barring a significant increase in the crime rate.

About the Report
To prepare this report, Claire-Shubik Richards, senior associate at the Philadelphia Research Initiative, conducted dozens of interviews with a wide range of stakeholders in the criminal justice system in Philadelphia and other jurisdictions. She undertook multiple court and jail observations and reviewed numerous official reports and other documents. Many of the statistics included in this report are the  result of original data analysis conducted for the Philadelphia Research Initiative by Don Stemen, assistant professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative, edited the report. The research builds on the work on state prisons and corrections done by our colleagues at the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.