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Phila D.A.’s Rehabilitation-Centered Criminal Justice Reforms

March 22, 2012

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, in which life without parole was imposed on juveniles for murder. In Jackson, the appellant is a non-triggerman accomplice to a felony that devolved into a murder. The appellants seek to extend Graham v. Florida, which held that life without parole for non-homicide crimes by juveniles constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the course of this week’s arguments, Justice Scalia—who dissented in Graham—remarked, “I thought that modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing, and they no longer call prisons reformatories or whatever, and punishment is the criterion now. Deserved punishment for crime.”

Not quite.  Justice Scalia was apparently referring to the broad abandonment in the U.S. of incarceration as a means of reforming criminals. Despite vestigial terminology like “penitentiary” and “corrections,” the concept of rehabilitation via imprisonment was largely discarded in the mid-1970s, after a study deemed two decades of such efforts a failure. Yet, other rehabilitation-minded initiatives, such as diversionary programs, have flourished of late. Those programs allow qualifying offenders to avoid imprisonment (and sometimes even a criminal record altogether) if they complete program requirements for rehabilitation and restitution.

Yesterday, District Attorney Seth Williams touted the recent implementation of a diversionary program for defendants facing drug-dealing charges for the first time. Under the program, defendants plead no contest and get the benefit of education, job-training and social services programs. The records of those that successfully complete the program are expunged. The program will be administered by a broad coalition of governmental and non-profit entities, including the Center for Literacy and the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

In addition to the societal benefits of the program’s expected recidivism reduction are fiscal benefits. The $1.3 million pricetag will be met by grants from the Lenfest and William Penn Foundations. Meanwhile, the program is expected to save $7 million in incarceration and court costs. Moreover, in conjunction with the D.A.’s small amounts of marijuana (SAM) program, this shift in handling of drug crimes could have long-term benefits. Primary among them is a potential reinforcement of the trend in declining prison population. Whereas prior reductions in inmate numbers came largely from cutting pre-trial detention time, these programs seek to reduce the proportion of lower-level offenders serving prison time, as well as recidivism.

Of course, if these programs are successful, they will jibe with Graham‘s focus on redemption by juveniles. But they will leave unanswered the question of how to reduce recidivism by incarcerated felons, most of whom will eventually be released and have to attempt reintegration into society.

Disclosure: The author works at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. However, any views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Office.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. nicole mac permalink
    March 22, 2012 10:32 pm

    nice post joshu – anxious to hear how this program plays out, hoping for the best!

  2. scott williams permalink
    March 23, 2012 12:10 am

    how can a no contest plea be expunged? i thought it had the same effect as a conviction. will it be related to section 17 probation w/out verdict?

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