By Chris Hepp
Philadelphia has been awarded a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant to fund an aggressive plan to reduce its prison population by 34 percent over three years while addressing racial bias across the criminal justice system.
If the plan is successful, Philadelphia would offer a national model for criminal justice reform while ending its dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate of any big city in the nation.
"It is a bold and ambitious plan that is also sound, practical, and reasonable," said Laurie Garduque, director of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation justice reform program. "In terms of the kinds of changes Philadelphia needs to make, it rose to the top."
The foundation chose Philadelphia from among 191 applicants, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Houston, for what is its largest justice reform award this year.
"This is a huge achievement that we have been selected," said Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff for the city's deputy managing director for criminal justice and director of the grant project. "It provides us an opportunity to continue the work we have been doing, and it shows that a third party, a respected national foundation, believes we can achieve our goals, which go beyond reducing the prison population. Equally important is having a more fair and just criminal justice system."
With the grant, which is being announced Wednesday, the city will employ a variety of strategies to keep appropriate nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system, move those already in prison more quickly back to the community, and use alternatives to incarceration for others.
The plan relies in part on diversion programs, alternatives to cash bail, and early intervention by public defenders, police, and mental-health professionals. To reduce racial inequities, there will be bias training across the criminal justice system.
The plan's success requires unprecedented cooperation among the numerous and often competing entities that make up the criminal justice system.
"There is absolutely no question that where the rubber meets the road will be in the implementation of what the grant promises," said Benjamin Lerner, the deputy managing director for criminal justice, who in the past has led the Defenders Association and served as a Common Pleas Court judge. "But we can do it. I've never seen, in 40 years in this system, this degree of collaboration."
The city's winning proposal was the product of a months-long effort -- one that straddled two mayoral administrations -- by representatives of the District Attorney's Office, Police Department, Managing Director's Office, Defenders Association, Philadelphia Prisons, and the city's courts.
They set out to attack one of the city's most intractable problems -- a burdensome prison population that now stands in excess of 7,000.
According to the grant proposal, city inmates are held in custody an average of 95 days, four times the national average. Sixty percent are simply awaiting trial. Seventy-two percent are black, in a city where 54 percent of the population is black.
The MacArthur proposal would address that racial disparity in a number of ways, including systemwide training to identify and avoid bias.
The city's police, beyond bias training, would receive guidance in using the civil rather than criminal code when confronted with low-level nonviolent violations such as public drinking and smoking on SEPTA platforms, according to Mark Houldin, policy director at the Defender Association.
Rather than arrest, violators would face citations.
In addition, two adjoining police districts with high rates of minority incarceration will be chosen to train officers in identifying low-risk offenders who would be better served by mental-health or substance-abuse treatment than arrest.
The MacArthur proposal also provides a range of strategies to reduce the overall number of inmates.
Those include developing an objective way to identify defendants unlikely to miss court appearances and thus good candidates for release; increasing the use of alternatives to bail, such as house arrest and GPS monitoring; and providing earlier intervention by public defenders to improve a defendant's chance of being released on low or no bail.
The city will expand felony diversion programs for those arrested for selling drugs, including crack cocaine and heroin. Many of those arrested for such crimes are nonviolent offenders with no previous history of felonies.
"We are being very deliberate in who we target, because we want this program to work," said Derek Riker, chief of the diversion unit for the District Attorney's Office. "We want to be sure we are targeting the right individuals, those who would be amenable to changing their life."
The total cost of the project is $6.1 million, of which $2.1 million will be covered by the city. The remaining $500,000 will be raised from private sources, Wertheimer said.
Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defenders Association, offered her summation of the project's aspirations.
"We want to make sure we are not making people more desperate by coming into the system, to make sure we are fundamentally fair," she said. "I am optimistic we can have a system that the public can trust, that they can rely on. I think we can do more than just reduce the prison population. We can have an outcome that will be even better."
(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer