Has a bold reform plan helped to shrink Philly’s prison population?

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Back in January, Municipal Court Judge Marsha Neifield was undertaking a radical experiment in criminal justice reform from the otherwise drab confines of an 11th floor courtroom in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center.

There were no major criminals on her docket — just addicts, small-time drug dealers, and a man accused of stealing a power drill from inside a car. But all of the offenders had been in jail for nearly a week, unable to scrape together bail-bond amounts as small as $500. Some, when asked for their addresses, could only provide the names of a homeless shelter.

Now each had a chance to be released, thanks to a new initiative called early bail review, a key component of the city’s efforts to reduce its notoriously high local jail population as part of a $3.5 million grant it was awarded a year ago by the MacArthur Foundation.

The city set a target of reducing the prison population by 34 percent over three years. It’s making progress.

The number of inmates has fallen nearly 12 percent, from 7,486 last April to 6,603 as of last month, according to data released Wednesday by the Managing Director’s Office. The prison population numbered as many as 8,301 as recently as early 2015. The drop-off that has earned praise from even hardened critics of the various arms of the local justice system.

This was no small task: Philadelphia has the highest per capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the nation. About 30 percent of those sitting behind bars are awaiting trial.

There had been interest for some time in doing something to address the scores of nonviolent inmates who are marooned in the prison complex in Northeast Philadelphia.

Over the last twelve months, 19 different pilot initiatives were crafted to help that tally continue to shrink; 10 have already been implemented, with three more — including a roll-out of 700 modern, wireless electronic monitoring devices — coming soon.     

“We have these hearings in an effort to level the playing field for individuals who are unable to post lesser amounts of bail, where others in similar situations might already be released,” Judge Neifield explained to Troy Devlin in her courtroom in January. His bail had been set at $7,500 for possessing less than a pound of marijuana with the intent to distribute.

She ordered him released on his own signature instead. Devlin would go on to benefit from negotiated early resolution, another strategy devised as part of the proposal that won the city its MacArthur grant. By Feb. 21, his case was resolved: he got three years’ probation, vocational training, and job placement assistance.

“In a world without early bail review, he may have sat in jail for four or five months to get the outcome that he would’ve gotten anyway,” said Mike Barry, deputy chief of the Pretrial Division at the District Attorney’s Office.

Success stories

Neifield and about a dozen other criminal justice officials planted themselves around a wide conference table in the Municipal Services Building last Friday to take stock of the progress the city has made so far. 

They recognized the irony of the moment. Philadelphia had been slow to embrace the need for prison reform, but was now all-in. Meanwhile, the state House just passed a bill to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences — over the objections of state Department of Corrections leaders  — and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has seemingly indicated an interest in revisiting crime-fighting strategies that were popular in the 1980s and ’90s, the height of the unsuccessful war on drugs. 

Locally, the smart play was to accentuate the positive. Neifield said 309 people have been released so far as part of early bail review, which is offered to nonviolent offenders who are being held on $50,000 bail or less and unable to post bail within two days. 

Of those released, 92.3 percent appeared at their first court hearing; all but 17 had been released on their own signature.

The early parole petition program is another effort showing early success. To get a judge to sign off on parole, defendants often need to present re-entry plans that will assure they’ll walk a straight line. 

As part of the MacArthur grant, the Philadelphia Defenders Association last May began offering its help to anyone city jails who was interested in making a case for early parole — even if they had other counsel at some point.

“We’ve filed 261 early parole petitions, and 155 have been granted,” said Mark Houldin, a policy director for the Defenders.

Other initiatives have also been aimed at reducing the amount of time people spend in prison. Chronic DUI offenders who used to spend six months behind bars before before being released on house arrest are now being released after 90 days. 

The District Attorney’s Office is only a few months into experimenting with a detainer alternative program, which offers drug treatment to 45 people on probation whose only violations are for habitual drug use. Instead of being bounced back to a cell, they’re being given up to 12 weeks to get their drug habit under control. 

The MacArthur grant also allowed the D.A.’s Office to continue offering The Choice is Yours, a diversionary program that provides education and workforce training to defendants who would otherwise face jail time for nonviolent felonies.

The program, which began in 2012 with the help of a grant from the Lenfest Foundation, was set to run out of funding. Derek Riker, the chief of the Diversion Courts Unit at the D.A.’s Office, said 70 people agreed to participate in the first class. 

“We had an 88 percent graduation rate. The recidivism rate after one year for the graduates was only 12 percent,” he said. 

More reforms to come

Houldin said the Defenders Association will launch a pretrial advocate program this month. A representative from the office will be stationed at Police Headquarters four days a week.

“We’ll provide representation for clients at their initial bail hearing,” Houldin said, “and hopefully inform the magistrate to make better bail decisions that might result in more release.” 

The Defenders Association expects to serve about 240 people a month as part of the pilot program, which could later expand to police districts across the city. 

The Police Department, meanwhile, is hoping to soon start a diversion program in the 22nd and 39th Districts that will require police officers to take drug addicts to a treatment center on Lehigh Avenue instead of arresting them.

“The average officers today are very different than they were 20 years ago,” said Capt. Francis Healy. “They are looking for alternatives to having to arrest somebody.” 

Still to come is citywide training on implicit and explicit racial bias, and the development of a contoversial risk tool to predict which defendants were likely to re-offend

Angus Love, of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, was skeptical of whether the MacArthur initiatives would have an impact, or even been followed through. 

“I did have an opinion which wasn’t favorable,” he said. “But now I really offer Mayor Kenney credit for stepping up to the plate and dealing with the overcrowding at the Philadelpha jail complex.”

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