Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross stand at a press conference in 2016. Credit: @PhiladelphiaGov on Twitter

Three years from now, the prison population in Philadelphia ought to be 34 percent lower. That’s more than 2,500 people who won’t be in prison.

The city announced Wednesday that Philadelphia has received $3.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation to kickstart its years-long plan to slash the prison population and improve racial disparities that exist in the system.

Just to get to this point, criminal justice stakeholders spent months deeply analyzing data from courts, prisons and police to find which offenders were slipping through the cracks — people who ended up in prison because they couldn’t afford relatively low bail, or were dealing with mental illness or addiction.

Now, the millions granted to the city will allow those same stakeholders to implement fixes, whether that’s increasing the use of house arrest, developing new systems to rate offenders based on risk or identifying people sooner who are being held on minor offenses because they can’t make bail.

And it means Philadelphia can lead the nation in reforms.

 “This is sort of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do real transformative work in the criminal justice system,” Acting Prisons Commissioner Mike Resnick said. “We’re going to change how the system operates, and the hope is that those changes are institutionalized and they last.”

Why Philly hopes to be a national leader

Philadelphia Municipal Services Building
Philadelphia Municipal Services Building Credit: Screenshot Google

For 15 years, Philadelphia’s prison system has held more inmates than it was built for. Though now, after changes have been implemented in the last year as part of the MacArthur process, the Philadelphia prison system now holds about 7,400 inmates, which is the lowest it’s been in a decade. Still, three quarters of the people incarcerated wait six months or more in prison before being sentenced, which costs Philadelphia taxpayers well over $100 million a year.

The Vera Institute of Justice estimates more than seven in ten people in local jails are there for non-violent offenses, while low-income residents and racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately make up the jail population.

Meanwhile, criminal justice reform has dominated national conversation. President Obama spoke in Philadelphia last year about changing the system to offer opportunities for defendants, and former President Bill Clinton faced national scrutiny last week for his commentary in Philly on his own bill that some say ushered in mass incarceration in America.

In May 2015, the Philadelphia criminal justice community — executives from the Managing Director’s Office, prisons, police, the district attorney, the defender, the Court of Common Pleas, Municipal Court, probation and parole and the pre-trial services department — found out Philadelphia was one of 20 communities to receive a $150,000 starter grant from the MacArthur Foundation as part of its Safety and Justice Challenge. That money was to be used as a planning grant so communities could study their jail populations and sketch out how they’d use a second round of funding to significantly decrease their prison populations.

So the leaders in Philadelphia went to work. A project manager was hired and point people were appointed in agencies and departments across government and the judicial system. Mark Houldin, policy director at the Philadelphia Defender’s Association, said nearly every person in the Philadelphia criminal justice system was involved in some way and he often reached out to lower-level staff members for guidance on the planning process over the last year.

For months the biggest challenge was collecting data. Jaime Henderson, a Philadelphia courts research analyst, said a new language for compiling data was developed because every agency collected and stored data in a different way. So before attorneys, judges, politicians and experts could figure out how to change the system, they had to first know what the system they were dealing with looked like on a micro level — and that proved arduous.

“We were working on the data deliverables up until the application was due in January,” she said. “It’s a very time intensive process.”

The data showed a map of exactly how the Philadelphia criminal justice system operates, from pre-arrest to re-entry. Analysts looked at the flow of the system and then found different points where the jail population was increasing. From there, working groups and sub-committees zeroed in on creating solutions: Deciding how much money would go toward upgrading electronic monitoring systems, brainstorming new technologies to keep track of and classify offenders, etc.

Meanwhile, planners organized site visits with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that works to reform the criminal justice system, and met with current and former inmates.

“This wasn’t just a bunch of people who work in the system sitting around,” said Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff for the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice. “We went outside as much as we could, engaged the community and validated it. And I think that’s something that we plan to continue to do as we implement and have a public dialogue about this.”

By January, the massive grant application that laid out where exactly funding would go was submitted. This week ,with the public announcement of the news that Philadelphia had been selected as the recipient of MacArthur’s largest justice grant, the planning phase had largely ended.

The $3.5 million MacArthur grant is just a piece of the funding puzzle. The city is chipping in $2.1 million and another half million is expected through private donations, to bring the project total to $6.1 million over three years.

“There is a sigh of relief,” Dep. Court Administrator Richard McSorley said. “But we’re so eagerly anticipating moving from the planning phase to actually making these things tangible.”

How things will change

Pope Francis hugs an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his visit to Philadelphia.
Pope Francis hugs an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his visit to Philadelphia. Credit: SCREENSHOT 6ABC

Six main strategies should significantly decrease the prison population in Philadelphia; each includes detailed plans and programming to streamline the criminal justice process:

  • Address over-incarceration of pre-trial defendants
  • Create efficiencies in case processing
  • Address violations of community supervision
  • Reduce racial and ethnic disparities
  • Address special populations, and
  • Improve data capacity.

The largest chunk of funding — $3,022,049 over three years — address over-incarceration at the pre-trial stage. This means improving and upgrading alternatives to cash bail and increasing the use of electronic monitoring. There’s also funding earmarked to develop a pre-trial “risk tool.”

Philadelphia Courts Director of Pre-trial Services Michael Bouchard said the tool that’s still in development would automatically rate pre-trial defendants based on danger to the community and likelihood of showing up for court appearances. Then it would rank them on a scale from low to high-level and, from there, officials can make the call of what pre-trial bail option is most appropriate.

There’s also half a million dollars set aside to expand a diversionary program for drug offenders called The Choice Is Yours, $320,000 to better coordinate services for defendants with mental health disorders and $318,000 for pre-arrest diversion.

Derek Riker, who heads up the diversion unit at the Office of the District Attorney, said a plan has been put in place with the police department to better evaluate how potential defendants can be diverted prior to arrest to obtain services because they’re either in a mental health crisis or are under the influence of drugs at the time of the offense.

He added the Defender Association and the Office of the District Attorney have gotten better at finding people in custody on a misdemeanor case when they would otherwise be released on bail. In the past, it could take upwards of 90 days to resolve the case. Today it takes under three weeks.

“The planning purposes for the grant actually got us looking into the details of every level of cases we’re processing through the system,” he said, “and it kind of brought to our attention (that) this is sort of like a black hole they were falling into.”

As for racial and ethnic disparities in the prison population, an audit is expected to be performed to further detail where the disproportionality is coming from and more funds have been set aside to provide police with implicit and explicit bias training. Other programs and changes that will be funded through the grant and the city include: additional pre-trial advocates, reviewing early bail, reviewing continuances and plea deals in the courts system, offering additional alternatives to incarceration and funding treatment options for offenders without access to services.

If all goes well, the local prison population will be a third lower in three years. And Philadelphia will serve as a model for effective criminal justice reform in addressing over-incarceration.

“All the stars are aligning,” Wertheimer said. “There’s national pressure. There’s public pressure. The federal government is on board. We’ve found a major funder in MacArthur and we think other funders will follow suit. It’s just the right moment in time.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.