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Justice reforms take hold, the inmate population plummets, and Philadelphia closes a notorious jail

Inside the House of Correction, a Philadelphia jail built in 1927, in 2016. Due to justice reforms and a sharply declining jail population, Philadelphia will close the jail in 2020. (Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer)

This article has been updated to correct a statement by the public defender that initial bail hearings are staffed by lawyers at all times. They are not.

The American criminal justice system’s gradual realization that too many people are in jail needlessly just got a large, visible boost from the city of Philadelphia. The city announced last week that it would close its notorious 91-year-old House of Correction jail because reforms begun two years ago have dropped the city’s jail population by 33 percent, without causing any increase in crime or chaos.

Defense attorneys are working harder to get defendants released quickly with no bail or low bail, prosecutors typically don’t oppose that, and the city’s judges are releasing them. Philadelphia police are taking more defendants to treatment rather than jail. More petitions for early parole from longer sentences are being granted. More space is now available in the city’s six jails for rehabilitation programs, and less overtime pay is needed for jail guards. There is a strong consensus across the top levels of Philadelphia’s justice system that the reforms, made with the help of a $3.5 million grant and guidance from the MacArthur Foundation, are working.

“The system didn’t work,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. “It didn’t have outcomes that were acceptable. We had a revolving door. Rather than holistically treating people, we’d just lock them up, they’d do their time and then they’d be right back. It’s difficult to take care of your kids, or your parents, if you’re not there.”

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Kenney cited two new approaches he thought were particularly successful. One is “early bail review,” for people still in jail after five days with bonds of $50,000 or less. Kenney said 84 percent of those reviewed were released within five days, and more than 92 percent had shown up for their subsequent hearings. A second initiative involves police diverting drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and since December “no one who’s been in the program has been rearrested,” Kenney said.

And Part I crime in Philadelphia — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft — is down three percent over the past two years, the mayor said.

“What you have in Philadelphia,” said Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation, “are shared values with respect to a fair and effective justice system and protecting public safety. And a realization that there are better ways to hold people accountable instead of incarceration. When you start to shrink the footprint of the system, and do it safely, you’re in a posture that’s more fair and more effective.”

In July 2015, Philadelphia had 8,082 people in its six jails. The reforms began in 2016, and last Friday, Philadelphia had 5,394 people in its jails, according to the city’s Department of Corrections. That’s a 33 percent decrease, to a level not seen since the 1990s. The House of Correction, with no sprinkler system and no air conditioning, is down to 199 inmates in its 166 cells, so Kenney announced it would close by 2020. “Reaching the point where we can shutter this facility once and for all,” Kenney said at a news conference, “without needing to build a new prison, this is a milestone.”

The city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, said getting the grant from the MacArthur Foundation “brought all of us together to really examine what’s going on in our system. We all agreed to work on what’s in our purview to say, ‘Okay, we can do things differently here.’ I don’t think it would have happened but for MacArthur. We took a bird’s-eye view of, ‘Where can we make changes?’”

One thing the city’s defender system launched was to place lawyers at police district stations to represent clients immediately after an arrest during their first appearance before a bail commissioner. The lawyers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Bradford-Grey said, and have handled more than 1,400 cases in the past two years. “Now that we’re able to give judges much better information,” she said, “they have found it very useful when they make decisions. Usually they have no more information than the current charges and the criminal history.” But with more context about the defendant’s past, living arrangement and employment, “people are more likely to be released without a cash bond or with more affordable bond amounts.” NOTE: Philadelphia’s Defender Association said the bail hearings are not staffed 24 hours a day, but only during one shift as part of a pilot program, and not by lawyers, policy director Mark Houldin said. 

Justice experts have found that mass incarceration — and Philadelphia had the highest per capita incarceration rate among the nation’s 10 biggest cities before this project — often imposes unnecessary harm on defendants, and their families, who aren’t violent or a threat to flee by costing them their jobs and their ability to hold their own financially. Bail has also been found to disproportionately affect poor and minority defendants, who must sit in jail while defendants who can post higher bonds are released on the same charges.

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Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, announced in February that his office would no longer ask for cash bail for low-level offenses, which he said made the system “fairer for the poor and for people of color.” A longtime defense attorney, Krasner said in a news release, “There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail. It’s simply not fair. We don’t imprison the poor for poverty. This new cash bail policy will not only save the taxpayers money by allowing low-level defendants to maintain their freedom, but it will begin to level the economic and racial playing field in our courtrooms.”

Krasner’s predecessor, Seth Williams, initially involved the city’s prosecutors in the project, and the city’s municipal court judges also have endorsed the reforms. Another new initiative that the prosecutors and judges have not opposed is early parole. The public defenders began offering to assist convicts in convincing the court that they should be released before their parole date, and judges have granted close to 60 percent of the requests, officials said.

About 24 percent of Philadelphia’s jail population is awaiting trial, a drop from 30 percent a year ago. “The people that are no longer in our prison population are all vetted,” Kenney said. “They simply could not make bail. We wound up paying $160 a day or so keeping them locked up. Many of the people on our system are in there for something drug-related. We need to get them to the proper treatment or job training, and they can’t do that sitting in jail watching TV or walking around in a yard. You can keep track of people through the probation office.”

The reduced prison population will soon mean reduced prison costs, Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said. “It’ll begin to impact our overtime costs,” Carney said, and eventually the hiring rate for a uniformed staff of more than 2,300 should slow.

And the smaller inmate population will improve opportunities for rehabilitative and retraining programs, Carney said. “We were so limited in rehabilitation space,” she said. “Now you can expose these inmates to the programs and services intended to bring about cognitive change.”

Making all these reforms meant bringing in parties who often have different agendas, meaning cops and judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, and getting their goals aligned. “Often the problem is we don’t look at it as systems reform,” Garduque said. “We look at it as one decision-maker at a time, and you don’t get buy-in from somebody.” When everyone buys in and the system begins to respond more thoughtfully, Garduque said, “there’s more public confidence and legitimacy, and families and communities are all better off.”