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How Philadelphia’s Reduced Prison Population Has Saved Taxpayer Dollars Without Compromising Public Safety

July 25, 2011

The size of Philadelphia’s prison population has been a contentious point for the last forty years, the subject of endless debate and two federal class-action lawsuits. From 1980 to 2008, the population quadrupled. This seemingly intractable problem is not unique to Philadelphia—California’s prison overcrowding is so bad that the U.S. Supreme Court recently got involved, declaring it in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But recent criminal justice reform has quickly mitigated the seemingly intractable problem. The prison population is down 20% from a high of 10,000 in January 2009, saving the city $10 million. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative attributes the shift to reductions in the number of inmates awaiting trial or parole/probation violation hearings. Doubling the reduction would allow the city to close one of its six jails, leading to much greater savings.

District Attorney Seth Williams gets a lot of credit both in the Pew report and in general for spearheading a variety of reforms to achieve these reductions. And he deserves a lot of credit. (Disclosure: I work in the DA’s Office (but speak only for myself)). But many of these reforms required changes not only internally but also across the criminal justice system. Accordingly, their success required the cooperation of other criminal justice system stakeholders, including the courts and the Defender Association. Also deserving of credit for supporting reform efforts is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and especially Chief Justice Ron Castille (a former Philadelphia District Attorney) and Justice Seamus McCafferey (a former Philadelphia Police sergeant and Municipal Court administrative judge).

The best part of these reforms is that they haven’t come at a cost to public safety, which is usually a prominent concern over prison reduction proposals. Rather, these reductions largely spring from measures to increase efficiency. For example, probation and parole violation hearings are taking place sooner and new diversionary programs are resolving minor cases quickly and without prison sentences. The result is a reduction in prison population at the same time as a modest reduction in violent crime—a twin triumph seen in Canada in the 1990s but which has eluded the U.S. as a whole. Hats off to the city’s criminal justice leadership for this signal achievement. Let’s hope we can keep up the progress.

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