Philadelphia’s Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions

May 17, 2010

Philadelphia’s Crowded, Costly Jails: the Search for Safe Solutions is a Philadelphia Research Initiative  report that provides findings on a number of key issues:

  • Why Philadelphia’s jail population rose for most of the last decade
  • Why the population fell in the past year
  • What is being done to manage the population
  • What measures are in place elsewhere that might be worth considering for Philadelphia

From the moment the Philadelphia Research Initiative came into existence, taking a hard look at the Philadelphia Prison System was near the top of our agenda. We knew that the population in the city’s jails—and the cost to the taxpayers—had been rising year after year with seemingly no end in sight. We wondered whether it had to be this way.

In the summer of 2009, as we turned our attention to the subject, there were about 9,400 men and women housed in the prison system, which occupies a vast complex along State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. On a per capita basis, among the 50 counties and cities with the most inmates, Philadelphia had the fourth highest inmate population in the country.

Then, something unexpected happened. The inmate population started to decline. And it kept falling into 2010.

The recent decline tells us something important: The city’s jail population can be controlled when officials in the criminal justice system work together to make it happen. And if that work is undertaken with caution, creativity and an understanding of the makeup of the jail population, reducing the numbers can be done while protecting public safety.

Much of the drop in Philadelphia’s inmate population is due to state legislation that has moved one group of convicted criminals from the city jails to the state prisons. Some of it is due to a reduction in arrests. Measures are being taken to make the criminal justice system more efficient and more innovative in the ways it deals with incarceration.

The Philadelphia Research Initiative hosted a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on the findings of its report.  Watch the video, Behind the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Prison Population: A Conversation.

Because of the strong audience participation during the Q&A period, time did not permit our panelists and other leaders in the criminal justice community to discuss all of the audience questions that were submitted at the event.  Subsequently, the participants generously agreed to continue the conversation in writing.  Here is a link to that Q&A

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