Behind the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Prison Population: A Conversation

Behind the Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Prison Population: A Conversation

The Philadelphia Research Initiative hosted a panel discussion on the findings of its report, “Philadelphia’s Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions.” 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. Below is the Q&A. 

Learn more and watch the video of the May 19, 2010 panel discussion.

From: Arthur Evans, Commissioner, Philadelphia Dept. of Behavioral Health
To: General Panel Question

Question: How Does Behavioral Health Treatment Fit Into Strategies to Decrease The Prison Population?


R. Seth Williams, District Attorney: Addressing behavioral health is critical to reducing recidivism. The Council of State Governments recently found that 14.5 percent of males and 31 percent of females entering local jails—or 16.9 percent overall—have serious mental illnesses. We need to increase collaboration between the criminal justice and mental health systems and improve the responses to individuals in contact with both systems. Indeed, many of our drug addicted offenders have (a) co-occurring behavioral health issue(s) that must be addressed. We need to ensure that our mental health courts are adequately funded and efficiently operating. Prosecutors, police and mental health practitioners must work together to address the crimeogenic needs of those with behavioral health issues, with the critical goal of reducing recidivism and victimizations.

(Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, referred the question to Jim Parsons, director of Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health program, which is working on projects that describe the overlap between criminal justice and behavioral systems with the aim of crafting responses that improve access to treatment and other types of supportive services.)

Jim Parsons: According to research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rates of mental illness are much higher in prisons than in the general population. Incarcerating individuals with mental health problems is also more costly than holding those without psychiatric disorders and, from both a humanitarian and a fiscal perspective, evidence points toward adjusting justice system practices to address mental health problems among those accused and convicted of crimes.

There are at least three ways that effective identification and treatment of mental illness can reduce the prison population. First, because of the link between criminal involvement and untreated mental illness, particularly among the large numbers of former inmates who also have a co-occurring substance-use disorder, targeted treatment would contribute to reducing the numbers of people who re-enter the system. Second, given that evidence shows that people with mental illness are often held for longer periods than those serving sentences for equivalent offenses who do not suffer from psychiatric disorders, more appropriate responses to the mental health needs of those people already in custody would result in shorter periods of incarceration for many of them. Finally, by referring people who have been arrested to treatment services as an alternative to custody and providing them with appropriate supportive services and supervision, it should be possible to improve public safety outcomes while reducing the fiscal burden of burgeoning prison populations.

Reverend Dr. Ernest McNear, Chairman of the Kingdom Care Reentry Network: The prevalence of behavioral health issues in the problem of excessive cost and recidivism in the jail and prison population is well documented. In February 2010, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) reported that 65 percent of all U.S. inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction and only 11 percent receive any treatment. The report goes on to say that alcohol and other drugs are significant factors in all crime:

  • 78 percent of violent crimes;
  • 83 percent of property crimes; and 
  • 77 percent of public order, immigration or weapon offenses; and probation/parole violations.

With this kind of evidence as to the lack of investment (11 percent treated) in the problem of behavioral health amongst inmates and offenders, as compared to its overwhelming connection to crime, the strategy to reduce recidivism and the corrections budget as well as to provide public safety should be grounded and focused in the area of behavioral health. Collaboration with and investing in faith based and community based programs that address these issues is key to a successful strategy. I agree with Susan E. Foster, CASA’s vice president when she says, “States complain mightily about their rising prison cost; yet they continue to hemorrhage public funds that could be saved if they provided treatment to inmates with alcohol and other drug problems and stepped up use of drug courts and prosecutorial drug treatment alternative programs.”

From: Anonymous
To: Michael P. Jacobson, Director and President of the Vera Institute of Justice

Question: Availability of jobs is key to healing folks released on parole or probation. how can we get private employers to think about hiring former offenders? What have other places done around this issue that Philly could learn from?


(Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, referred the question to Peggy McGarry, Vera’s director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections)

Peggy McGarry: The biggest problem for individuals with criminal records is the misconception that many employers have about legal exclusions—that is, the kinds of jobs for which some kinds of criminal histories make individuals legally ineligible and about the kinds of questions about a person’s criminal records that employers can legally ask.

Both can readily be addressed by a) a review of relevant state law; and b) an education and publicity campaign with employers.

The place that has done the most work on this is the Employment Opportunity Task Force in Baltimore, headed by Jason Perkins-Cohen. The organization works on behalf of all low-income wage earners but has focused much effort on those with criminal records. They have worked with local business councils and others to host breakfasts and similar events for large employers like universities and hospitals, hotels and convention centers, and for HR directors (many cities have associations of HR professionals) to explain state law, federal and state tax credits for hiring ex-offenders, and ways of connecting with probation and parole—when relevant—for additional support.

Would be employees, however, also need coaching on how to answer questions that will come up about both gaps in a work history and the person’s criminal history.

Another source of information is the Legal Action Center in NYC and its project the H.I.R.E. Network.

From: Anonymous
To: Louis Giorla, Prisons Commissioner, City of Philadelphia

Question: RE: The plan to pay defendant fines and costs from bail before returning it to defendant families: won’t this discourage defendant families from posting bail and leave more people in pretrial incarceration?


This is the first I have heard about such a proposal. Although we could conceivably charge defendants who paid their own bail, I don’t think a third party’s refund could be charged. I do believe it would delay or dissuade most families from making bail. Some defendants themselves might also take their chances on being released at a subsequent hearing rather than making and then forfeiting a portion of the bail. 

From: Anonymous
To: Louis Giorla, Prisons Commissioner, City of Philadelphia

Question: There have been efforts to control the prison population size in the past, and they’ve been short lived. What, if anything, makes the current efforts at population control different?


Over the last 10 years, significant reductions in the City’s prison population came when Police enforcement initiatives curtailed either crime, arrests, or both (Operation Safe Streets and Operation Sunrise). The results were short-lived. In the year following each initiative, the prison census increased significantly. In the 1980s and 1990s, court intervention and supervision of the Prisons led to periodic emergency releases of inmates. These releases kept the prison census at capped and established levels. Census caps at times had an adverse effect on public safety.

At least one study, conducted about five years ago, showed that there were identifiable bottlenecks in the adjudication process that, for lack of a better word stranded some offenders in jail for longer than necessary. Fluctuations in crime and arrests only made the situation worse.

As a result, over the last two years all member agencies of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Community, working together as the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, have worked to streamline the process. Many cases are now consolidated so that an offender with multiple cases appears before one judge rather than a separate judge for each case. In addition, Pennsylvania sentencing laws were changed to prevent inmates with sentences of longer than two years from being sent to county jails, including Philadelphia. Video hearings, another initiative, are now taking place in all Philadelphia Prisons to increase the number of cases being heard overall and reduce case continuances. 

The Philadelphia Prison Census has steadily decreased throughout 2009 and into 2010. Today we are seeing prison census numbers similar to those in 2005. There is still some work to be done so that our jail population reaches the same per capita rate of some other similar cities. But this reduction is due to efficiencies and not simply a reaction to overcrowding.

From: Marj Dugan
To: Judge Pamela Dembe, Common Pleas President Judge

Question: The community court is a key partner in reducing incarceration. However, the community court’s budget has been cut. Are there plans to rectify this?


Community Courts are not a key to reducing incarceration, as the types of cases that go through that process are generally not of a type that would result in incarceration. In order to keep everything running despite our across-the-board budget reductions of the past couple of years, we have moved some job positions in this area from our class 100 (payroll) budget line to grant funding. The grants run out next June, and if not renewed, there will be cutbacks for Community Court and many other programs.

From: Anonymous, Penn Law School
For: General Panel Question

Question: With the recent move towards placing individuals with two+ year sentences into the state system, this means the state system is now facing overcrowding and people have been moved to Virginia and Michigan. What effect does this have on recidivism when people are farther away from their families?


Everett A. Gillison, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety: These individuals have been sentenced by state court to serve state sentences. It is appropriate that the place of confinement be a state correctional institution as they are better equipped to deal with an individual inmate's long term needs. In all, the City is responsible for sending approximately 700 inmates to the State who otherwise would have been in Philadelphia County. The larger impetus for the increase in the Pennsylvania Prison population was the moratorium on granting state parole.

Reverend Dr. Ernest McNear, Chairman of the Kingdom Care Reentry Network: Offenders with sentences of two years or more are assigned to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facilities, which helps to relieve the stress on county jails in the Philadelphia Prison System. However, the dangerous situation and multiple problems that mass incarceration produce continue to persist and be quite distressful to the communities, families, inmates and prison systems involved.

Recidivism, which is only one of the many problems and issues exacerbated by mass incarceration, is certainly high on the list of negatives as a result of state incarceration. When an inmate is transferred out of state to serve time, it is often done in the middle of the night without warning to the inmate or his/her family or prior notice or knowledge of the destination. Authorities comment that this process is necessary for security. However, this type of treatment to the inmate and the inmate’s family or loved ones becomes an added offense and burden. The family is out of touch with their loved one, and visitation and communication is even more difficult, if not impossible.

When an inmate is not treated with dignity and respect and is denied access to programs and services that are geared toward transforming their behavior, it produces resentment in the inmate and an adversarial relationship is developed with the institution. This will serve to encourage adverse behavior from the inmate while incarcerated and a tendency to repeat behavior that may lead to recidivism when the inmate is released.

From: Anonymous
For: Everett A. Gillison, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety

Question: Is the city willing to invest seriously in electronic monitoring and GPS systems necessary to keep people out of jail pre-trial while ensuring that these defendants show up in court?


The City is willing to invest in any program or technology with a proven track record and that can deliver in the most economical manner a system that will ensure public safety and a defendant’s appearance at trial. This might be electronic monitoring with a GPS component, or it might be a series of day reporting sites located throughout the City—something we are currently exploring—or it might be a combination of these initiatives. We do want to see a reduction in our prison population as this translates into a savings for the City. However, keeping the public safe is paramount in any decision we make. We, along with our criminal justice partners, are aware that there are alternatives to incarceration that would better serve the needs of the City. As not all inmates are the same, the challenge becomes determining the right criteria for program participants that all of the stake holders can agree upon and then fashioning the appropriate program with the correct balance of control and supervision that will ensure public safety as well as attendance at trial.

From: Judge Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, Municipal Court of Philadelphia
For: Everett A. Gillison, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety

Question: In the year 2008-2009, millions were spent on inmate education and health care. Can these funds be redistributed for more efficiency and effectiveness to prevent recidivism? Is the city of Philadelphia planning reform in collaboration with state corrections and budget appropriators?


The City is constitutionally mandated to provide medical and mental health care for inmates. This is done through contracts with private companies that are experts in this field. The amount of these contracts is based upon the inmate population. If we are able to achieve sustained reductions in the inmate population, like we have seen in the last 12-18 months, we will realize savings not only in medical care, but in all aspects of prison operations. These savings can certainly be used to fund programs, like education and job training, that are geared to reducing recidivism and thus further reducing the prison population. 

The City works closely with our colleagues at the State to find ways in which we can improve our services. This is an ongoing process. 

From: Wendy Harper, Sr. Technology Awareness Program
To: R. Seth Williams, District Attorney

Question: A characteristic of the repeat offender is unemployment. What specific action does the DA plan to implement to reduce the number of repeat offenders who continue in criminal activity due to their inability to find decent employment?


I am in the process of implementing the Back on Track program, which was begun in San Francisco in 2005 by DA Kamala Harris. Back on Track recognizes that non-violent drug offenders too often cycle in and out of jail. Back on Track is a comprehensive employment and education reentry program that provides job training, education and other important life skills as an alternative to incarceration. I am working closely with Public Private Ventures and the Lenfest Foundation to replicate this program in Philadelphia. Additionally, the best way to prevent crime is to educate our children. Those who are educated are more likely to be employed and, therefore less likely to commit crime. I have worked closely with groups like Fight Crime PA, which works to ensure high levels of educational funding and demonstrate how such funding is a critical crime prevention measure. Finally, I am a strong proponent of economic development, because economic development means more jobs.

From: Anonymous
To: R. Seth Williams, District Attorney

Question: Is the DA considering supporting the release of terminally ill inmates?


Legislation enacted in 2007 strikes the appropriate balance. Under this law, the court may approve a petitioner’s request for a hospital or long-term care facility if the Department of Corrections shows clear and convincing proof that the medical needs of the inmate can be more appropriately addressed in such a facility, the facility has agreed to accept placement and care of the inmate, the inmate is seriously ill, there are no detainers against the inmate, and the placement does not cause undue risk.

Victim sensitivity is extremely important here. The bulk of those who are elderly and terminally ill committed very violent crimes, for which long terms of incarceration are appropriate. When any decisions as to early release are made, we must consider the concerns and opinions of our victims and their families.

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