Kenney’s Big Plan to Slash Philly’s Bloated Prison Population

He may ask the justice system to stop demanding cash bail from non-violent offenders, many of whom can't pay.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

A month ago, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide at his parent’s house in New York City. When Browder was 16 years old, he was charged with stealing a man’s backpack. A judge set his bail at $3,000, but his family didn’t have the money, and he spent the next three years in jail. He languished in solitary confinement for two of them. The charges were eventually dropped.

Activists have seized on Browder’s story as proof that the criminal justice system is fundamentally broken and bail should be overhauled. On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced a plan aimed at ending cash bail for some defendants.

Jim Kenney, Philadelphia’s presumptive next mayor, is thinking about proposing a similar overhaul here.

New York City is setting aside $18 million next year to allow judges to order low-risk defendants to participate in a supervision program in lieu of setting bail. It is expected to affect as many as 3,000 defendants.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, said the campaign has been eyeing a plan to end cash bail for low-level and nonviolent defendants for a while now.

“It’s something we’ve been discussing internally since late May as a way to reduce the prison population,” she said. “We’re still in the process of meeting with different stakeholders about the issue, but we’re optimistic it’s something we can get done with the help of the District Attorney and the First Judicial District if Jim’s elected in November.”

She declined to provide details on the potential plan just yet, saying, “We’ve discussed several different possibilities with varying impacts on the prison population. … We plan to announce a more formal policy proposal down the line.”

Ending cash bail for low-risk defendants would be a pretty big deal in Philadelphia. The city’s jails have been overcrowded for years now — 8,200 inmates were stuffed into them last month, even though they were built to hold only 6,500 people — and a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than half of Philly’s inmates were being held pretrial. Additionally, “39 percent of all pretrial admissions [in 2011] were for inmates charged with misdemeanors,” according to Pew.

Even if Kenney wins the November general election, and even if he proposes to end cash bail for some defendants, the proposal is hardly a slam-dunk. He would need to convince the city’s District Attorney (who is elected) and judges (who are also elected) to sign onto the idea, which would be politically risky even in this “smart-on-crime” era.

But at the very least, this shows that Kenney is thinking about making bold changes to Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

As a City Councilman, Kenney successfully led the charge to decriminalize marijuana possession in Philadelphia, arguing that it disproportionately impacted minorities. Likewise, “studies have shown that poor minorities accused of low-level crimes are more likely to get stuck in jail because they can’t afford to post even small amounts of bail,” the New York Daily News reported.