MacArthur Grant Will Give City Tools to Cut Prison Population

The city will use the $3.5 million award to implement bold new programs aimed at reducing the prison population by one third in the next three years.

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Sheila Woods-Skipper, President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, speaks at a press conference announcing the $3.5 million MacArthur Grant.

Philadelphia officials gathered Wednesday afternoon at the Criminal Justice Center to officially announce and celebrate a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation that will allow the city to implement several bold new plans aimed at reducing the overcrowded prison population.

Philadelphia’s goal is to reduce the prison population by 34 percent over a three-year period. The benchmark that reduction will be judged against is 8,080 — the population in Philly’s prisons on June 30th of last year, according to Julie Wertheimer, director of the grant project. Currently, that total stands at 7,452.

“We will prevent people from ever getting in the criminal justice pipeline,” said City Councilman Curtis Jones, one of many who spoke at today’s press conference, “from pre-K programs that the mayor’s talking about to alternatives to incarceration, so that we deal with the systemic issues behind why people are in prison.”

One example given at the event came from assistant district attorney Mike Barry. He talked about The Choice is Yours, the city’s first felony diversion program for nonviolent offenders charged with possession with intent to deliver. It involves an intensive screening and one-month process where “they have to prove themselves.”

“Over the course of the year, they get job training, mental health screening, and skills that they may need to provide [for themselves] on the outside,” Barry said. “And at the end of the year, rather than walk away with a criminal conviction, they walk away with these skills.” Barry said the city has “scuffled to fund” this program from year to year, but will not anymore due to the grant.

Sheila Woods-Skipper, the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, said the plan targets three major drivers of jail population: over-incarceration of pretrial defendants, the lengthy case process, and the incarceration of people who violate the terms of their community supervision.

“We will address the over-incarceration of pretrial defendants by fundamentally changing the way arraignment decisions are made and pretrial defendants are supervised in the community,” Woods-Skipper said. “Our aim is to reduce jail admissions and the reliance on cash bail.” The court system will implement a new pretrial risk tool and expand the range of supervision options for defendants who are awaiting trial.

The city also plans to conduct an audit of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The MacArthur Foundation’s “Safety and Justice Challenge has fostered an unprecedented level of collaboration between the city’s criminal justice partners,” Deputy District Attorney George Mosey said. “The team came together every week to design creative solutions based on data to address our jail overcrowding problem. … We want to do all that we can to ensure that we employ our limited resources to target the offenders that pose the greatest public safety threat to our community.” Mosey said the D.A.’s office currently diverts more than 40 percent of misdemeanor cases into an alternative program, and will be able to expand that number thanks to the grant.

“We are looking forward to reducing our overuse of prisons,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia. “Our prison system has the highest rate of incarceration of any large city in the country, and that’s definitely not something we are proud of.”

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