Pew Study: Philadelphia's Jail Population Driven Largely By Individuals Held Pretrial

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Pew Study: Philadelphia's Jail Population Driven Largely By Individuals Held Pretrial

A new study from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that the size of Philadelphia's jail population is driven largely by the number of individuals held pretrial—not by convicted criminals—and that without innovations to reduce that number, Philadelphia's gains in controlling its jail population may be hard to maintain or build upon. 
The study, Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions, provides a comprehensive look at the city's prison population—including its decades-long increase and recent decline; the measures the city of Philadelphia is taking to decrease the number of inmates; and what other jurisdictions are doing to control their jail populations.  

One conclusion that emerges—and is shared by many in the city's criminal justice system—is that the size of the population in the Philadelphia Prison System is largely within the power of policy makers to control and likely can be further reduced without jeopardizing public safety.

“The data and the experience of other cities indicate that Philadelphia can have fewer people in jail, save money and be no less safe,” said Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative. “Getting there will require the consensus of the criminal justice community, the support of elected officials and the buy-in of a public that consistently lists crime as its top local concern.”

For most of the past decade, the size of the inmate population and prison system's budget both grew dramatically even though, the report finds, arrests in the city were generally trending downward.  From 1998 through 2008, the Philadelphia Prison System saw its average daily inmate count climb by 45 percent, peaking at 9,787 in January 2009.  Federal statistics cited in the report show that as of 2008, the latest date for which numbers are available, Philadelphia had the fourth-highest jail population per capita of the jurisdictions with the nation's 50 largest jail populations, more than three times higher per capita than New York City or Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago.

In the past year, Philadelphia's inmate population has fallen about 14 percent from the peak, due largely to a change in state law that has permitted the transfer of hundreds of sentenced inmates from the city jails to state prisons. The population drop has allowed city officials to reduce the budget for the prison system. Even so, the prison system remains the third-biggest department in the city budget, trailing only human services and police.

The overall population continues to be driven by individuals held in jail prior to trial—last year, they accounted for 57 percent of the population in the prison system.  And individuals jailed for violating the terms of their probation or parole occupy nearly as many jail beds as convicted criminals serving sentences. So maintaining the current jail population or reducing it further will require taking steps to reduce or divert those flows, particularly the pretrial influx.

Over the past few years, stakeholders in the criminal justice system have been working together, primarily under the auspices of the city's Criminal Justice Advisory Board, to reduce the inmate population in a way that they feel has not compromised public safety. Among the steps that have been taken are these:

  • District Attorney R. Seth Williams is restructuring his office's charging unit with the intent of weeding out weak cases early in the process.
  • City officials have begun the process of planning a center where nonviolent offenders could report-in on a daily basis rather than go to jail.
  • The court system has taken a number of steps designed to expedite pleas for individuals accused of lower-level misdemeanors who are being held pretrial and to reduce the time in jail spent by some individuals arrested for violating the terms of their probation and parole.

As part of the study, the Philadelphia Research Initiative examined steps taken in jurisdictions around the country that have helped reduce the size of jail populations. The research yielded a number of policies that might be applicable to Philadelphia in some form:

  • Expanding the options for diverting troubled, low-level offenders out of the court system so that their addictions or mental health problems can be addressed in a more appropriate setting, as happens in Bexar County, Texas, which includes the city of San Antonio.
  • Creating new responses to probation violations so that so-called technical infractions, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer, can be punished without sending the individual back to jail. The state of Georgia has done so.
  • Developing an effective, research-based system of guidelines for bail. New York City and Washington, D.C., which have guidelines that are widely followed in court, release a significantly higher percentage of defendants on their own recognizance (without bail) than does Philadelphia and yet have a higher percentage of defendants appear for their court dates. Philadelphia has bail guidelines in place, but they are widely ignored and have not recently been shown to be effective.

The city has already seen some savings from its efforts to reduce the jail population. But since most jail costs are fixed, the report finds, more substantial savings will come only if the population declines far enough for a long enough time to allow city officials to close one of the jail facilities in the complex on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.

Other jurisdictions, the report finds, have established performance indicators by which they can track the effectiveness of measures designed to reduce the jail population. Philadelphia lacks similar indicators. “Absent reliable and current data, the public is unlikely to support innovations that claim to reduce the jail population without compromising public safety,” said Eichel.

Pew's study will be the focus of a panel discussion on the evening of Wednesday, May 19. The event, “Behind the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Prison Population, a Conversation,” is open to the public and begins at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, 34th and Chestnut streets. 

Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter is scheduled to give introductory remarks. The panelists are District Attorney R. Seth Williams, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett A. Gillison, Reverend Dr. Ernest McNear, chairman of the Kingdom Care Reentry Network, and Michael P. Jacobson, director and president of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

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 result of original data analysis conducted for the Philadelphia Research Initiative by Don Stemen, assistant professor of criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago.

About The Philadelphia Research Initiative
The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative provides timely, impartial research and analysis on key issues facing Philadelphia for the benefit of the city's citizens and leaders.  Pew is a nonprofit organization that applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.