Philly receives $2.3 million grant to continue working to reduce its jail population

The grant is aimed at reducing by 15% the number of people in city jails by the end of 2022


By Chris Palmer
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia has been awarded a $2.3 million MacArthur Foundation grant to continue its efforts to reduce the city's jail population and address racial inequities within the criminal justice system, officials announced Tuesday.

The grant — the fourth since 2015 that MacArthur's Safety and Justice Challenge Network has given to the city — is aimed at reducing by 15% the number of people in city jails by the end of 2022. Philadelphia's jail population, currently around 4,600 people, has already fallen by 43% since 2015.

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Still, that reduction has not improved racial disparities within the city's jails. According to an application for the grant the city submitted last year, 92% of the people in custody were people of color, compared with 65% of the city's population.

Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement: "Building on Philadelphia's progress is especially critical as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices against Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color reinforce the need to transform how systems operate."

The announcement comes after a year in which advocates pressed Kenney to "defund the police" and reduce the city's spending on law enforcement.

It also comes as the city continues to experience unprecedented levels of gun violence, with 62 homicides recorded in the first 39 days of this year, according to police statistics. The city's annual homicide tally has increased every year since 2016.

Kenney said eliminating unnecessary incarceration "directly impacts the health, safety, and recovery of our communities." Advocates have long held that communities can be made safer by reducing the role of law enforcement and jails, and instead directing resources toward Black and brown neighborhoods that lack investments in quality schools or jobs. The city pledged that the new MacArthur grant — which includes money that will be awarded to community organizations led by people of color — would help create "a safer, more effective, and more equitable" criminal justice system.

The money will fund seven new initiatives, the city said, including an eventual expansion of the role behavioral health counselors play in responding to nonviolent calls for service.

The grant will also expand efforts to provide hearings for those unable to post bail. Studies have shown that differences in the ability to post bail account for a large chunk of the racial disparity in pretrial detention.

In its proposal, submitted to MacArthur in September, the city described a bold remaking of pretrial detention, under which all incarcerated defendants would receive a full hearing and be considered for release within three days.

But on Tuesday, the District Attorney's Office instead announced a more modest plan, expanding "early bail review" hearings, which were previously reserved for those charged with lower-level crimes with bail at or below $100,000. Now those hearings will be for anyone with bail up to $250,000 if they remain in jail seven days after arrest.

The District Attorney's Office said the announcement was an important step on the road to eliminating cash bail in Philadelphia — a long-held goal of District Attorney Larry Krasner and reform advocates.

"What this is about to me, fundamentally, is bringing some measure of due process into the bail realm and giving the system enough actual process that we could move away from cash if possible," said Dana Bazelon, senior policy counsel at the DA's Office.

She said it's a move to bring Philadelphia's system in line with other major cities — but said more must be done, since the hearings are limited to a subset of defendants and will not occur until seven days after arrest.

The grant will pay for four staffers from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, one prosecutor and a part-time victim advocate. Bazelon estimated 50 to 100 additional defendants each week will qualify for hearings.

The proposal for detention hearings within three days would have followed an agreement by court leadership and bail-reform advocates, who sued in 2019 over Philadelphia's bail practices.

Candace McKinley, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which filed that lawsuit, said the early-bail review plan was an inadequate alternative. Her group would like to see detention hearings in which the onus is on the prosecutor to show pretrial release is not safe, rather than bail-review hearings that place the burden on the defense.

"This policy is better than nothing," McKinley said, "but that's not saying much when you look at the scope of the problem."

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