9 Bold Ideas From Philly’s Plan to Cut the Prison Population

The city just won a huge MacArthur grant. Here’s what’s proposed in it.

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Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced today that it has won a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to implement a bold plan to reduce the city’s bloated prison population.

While the money is surely welcome news to government officials and taxpayers, the bigger story is the plan itself. It amounts to a complete rethinking of the city’s criminal justice system, and if implemented, would affect everything from the way judges set bail to the number of arrests police officers make. Such an ambitious plan will no doubt attract accolades as well as critics.

Currently, Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate of the country’s 10 biggest cities, and the jails here have been overcrowded for years. As part of its grant proposal to the MacArthur Foundation, which was developed by both the Kenney and Nutter administrations and in partnership with the District Attorney’s Office, First Judicial District, Defenders Association and other stakeholders, the city has set an ambitious goal of slashing the prison population by 34 percent.

Until now, the city has kept its plan outlining how it would do that under lock-and-key. A summary of the proposal was released today. Here are nine key parts of it:

• Philadelphia will enlarge a diversionary program for felony defendants accused of selling drugs, including cocaine and heroin. “At present, only 7 percent of felony cases are diverted, compared to 40 percent of misdemeanors,” says the report. “The Choice is Yours, Philadelphia’s only felony diversion program, providing job skills and placement for young offenders charged with drug-distribution offenses, will be expanded.” The city doesn’t provide much more information on the program than that, leaving unexplained what age offenders must be to participate. Officials are expected to provide more details on this and other parts of their plan at a press conference today, which will be attended by Mayor Kenney, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper and others.

• In some cases, the Philadelphia Police Department will issue code violation notices to offenders instead of charging them with a crime. Officials hope this will reduce racial disparities in the justice system. Currently, people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s jail population, though they only account for 54 percent of Philadelphia’s population overall. The city’s report doesn’t provide any details about when, exactly, officers will issue code violation notices instead of making arrests. The paper says simply, “The PPD will train and educate officers to use civil code violations and broaden the range of offenses that are eligible for civil, rather than criminal action.” Stay tuned for more information on this.

• In two police districts that have high rates of racial disparities in arrests, the city will implement a new pilot program to avoid arrests in certain cases. “Police officers in that area will identify individuals they believe to be first time, low-level offenders whose primary need is treatment,” says the report. “Rather than making an arrest, officers will transport individuals to a pre-arrest diversion site for clinical evaluation and referral.” Again, details are scant on this proposal. The city has not revealed which police districts will participate in the pilot program.

• The city will conduct an audit of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “For Philadelphia to have an all-encompassing approach, racial disparity data must be regularly reviewed at every decision point,” says the report. “Philadelphia will develop a racial and ethnic disparity auditing practice across the entire system that involves the following steps: reporting the Relative Rate Index, reviewing agency data, developing and monitoring internal corrective action, [and] reporting to and oversight by agency leadership.”

The First Judicial District will develop a “learning-based risk tool” with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to help make decisions about whether to release defendants before trial. “In 2009, the Adult Probation and Parole Department partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to build a machine learning-based risk tool to manage caseloads. The FJD will work with the same researchers at the University of Pennsylvania to construct a pretrial tool in an identical manner,” says the city’s report. “The risk tool will introduce objectivity to the release decision, thereby reducing jail admissions, racial and ethnic disparities, and income-based disparities.” It should be noted that some critics have raised concerns about the fairness of risk assessment tools.

• Philadelphia will use alternatives to cash bail more often. As a candidate, Kenney said he was exploring a plan to end cash bail for non-violent and low-level offenders. This proposal doesn’t go that far, but it would implement a number of reforms. Officials “will establish a robust range of alternatives to cash bail based on risk level,” says the report. “A needs assessment will be created and new community partnerships will enable referrals to community-based services.” Also, “the Electronic Monitoring Unit will be updated and expanded to better supervise people in the community and allow more pretrial releases.”

• The Defenders Association will expand parts of its operation. As part of a pilot program, the Defenders Association says it will make attorneys available to defendants in a more robust way when their bail is being set. Currently, a lawyer is technically present at that juncture, but “there is no meaningful opportunity for individuals to speak with an attorney prior to release decisions being made.” Public defenders will also file early parole petitions for more prisoners. “Overall, inmates with a public defender have shorter lengths of stay than those with court-appointed or private counsel,” the report notes.

• The city will try to do a better job of dealing with mentally ill inmates. Thirteen percent of the city’s prisoners have at least one mental illness, according to the officials. “Staff will assist with applications for mental health treatment, housing, and public benefits, as well as scheduling appointments prior to discharge,” says the report. “The goal is to release eligible defendants within 30 days with greater community support.”

• Philadelphia will provide training about racial bias to “all of the criminal justice partners.” That ostensibly means employees in the police department, District Attorney’s office, First Judicial District and other agencies will receive training on racial basis. According to the report, “each agency will participate in a ‘train the trainer’ module and implement a plan to train agency personnel.”

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