One of the main rotundas in the Philadelphia House of Corrections

One of the main rotundas in the Philadelphia House of Corrections

Bobby Chen / Billy Penn

Philly slashed its jail population by almost 20 percent in just 2 years

And city officials are only partway toward their goal.

One of the main rotundas in the Philadelphia House of Corrections

One of the main rotundas in the Philadelphia House of Corrections

Bobby Chen / Billy Penn
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On an average day, there are about 1,500 fewer inmates in the Philadelphia prison system than there were just two years ago.

Philadelphia still has the highest incarceration rate per capita of the top 10 largest American cities. But the city claims it’s now all-in on criminal justice reform, and officials said Friday that a year into an aggressive plan to decrease the prison population, the number of inmates in six facilities along State Road has decreased 18 percent since July 2015.

Leaders representing every corner of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system were briefing City Council’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform on progress made since the city was awarded a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to kickstart a three-year plan to slash the prison population by 34 percent.

As Harrisburg is moving on a bill that reinstates mandatory minimums and the federal Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is returning to a tough-on-crime approach, the City of Philadelphia says it’s still committed to reducing its prison population.

A coalition of leaders in the criminal justice community — 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 — developed a plan with six specific strategies and, as part of those strategies, 19 programs to implement. Of those, 12 have begun, and officials cite those programs as major reasons for the prison population decrease from just over 8,000 in 2015 to 6,604 at the end of May.

The above graph shows how the Philadelphia prison population has decreased since January 2015.

How the Philadelphia prison population decreased since January 2015.

Two of four major programs aimed specifically at reducing the pre-trial population have been implemented: Pretrial bail advocates (a program through the Defender Association) and Early Bail Review.

The latter program launched in July 2016 and allows case review within five days for individuals in jail for non-violent offenses who have bails of $50,000 or less and no other reason to be held in prison. This gives people an opportunity for early release, rather than forcing them to remain in custody because they can’t afford a relatively small bail.

Since the program was put in place in July, the city says 84 percent of defendants who received an Early Bail Review hearing were granted release and, of those, 90 percent appeared at their next court date. The program’s estimated to have saved more than 50,000 “jail inmate bed days” since its inception.

There’s more work to be in the pre-trial area. Officials are looking to implement a new “risk tool” that uses updated stats and historical data to estimate the risk of failure to appear in court and new arrests for incarcerated individuals. And when it comes to cash bail, most in the criminal justice reform community are in favor of ditching it altogether. That’ll likely only be bolstered in the future if Democratic nominee for District Attorney Larry Krasner, a staunch reformer, wins in November.

“Not all of our implementations have been launched, and we still have a good bit of work to do,” Jaime Henderson, director of research and development in the First Judicial District, said during the hearing. “We are over halfway there… but there’s a lot of work that lies ahead of us.”

The MacArthur process started back in January 2015 when the national grant-making organization announced it would be investing $75 million in jurisdictions across the country as part of its Safety and Justice Challenge. By May 2015, Philadelphia was selected to be one of 20 communities to receive a $150,000 starter grant to take part in a planning phase.

Stakeholders created the six-strategy, 19-program plan that’s in the process of being implemented now. In April 2016, officials announced that MacArthur would be awarding Philadelphia its largest grant and would be giving the city among the most aggressive goals: Decreasing its prison population by one-third over just three years. The $3.5 million MacArthur grant is in addition to $2.1 million from the city and another half million through private donations, bringing the project total to about $6 million over three years.

The largest chunk of that cash — more than $3 million worth — went to reducing the number pre-trial inmates, who make up about 30 percent of the overall prison population.

Besides addressing the over-incarceration of pre-trial defendants, the city has five other strategies that they say have contributed to the decrease in prison population: Creating efficiencies in case processing, addressing violations of probation, reducing racial and ethnic disparities, addressing special populations, and improving data capacity.

What’s difficult to determine at this point is who exactly the decrease has helped.

“That population changes every day with people in and not,” Henderson said. “It’s not a specific group of 2,000 people. That means the population has decreased by that much.”

Julie Wertheimer, the city’s chief of staff for criminal justice, said it’s likely low-level, non-violent offenders who are less frequently sitting on State Road and awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay a relatively low bail.

“This is about increasing safety and increasing fairness in the system,” Wertheimer said. “Everything we’re doing is because we believe by making this a more fair system, it actually increases public safety across the city.”