Philadelphia seeks to cut its prison population in half

Philadelphia is taking its prison population reduction goals to a whole new level.

Pat Loeb
July 04, 2018 - 10:00 pm
Prison cell
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Philadelphia is taking its prison population reduction goals to a whole new level. 

In its application to renew McArthur Foundation funding for the effort, officials aim for a 50 percent reduction in the next five years. 

Director of the city's Justice Reform Strategies, Julie Wertheimer, calls it an "ambitious but achievable" goal, based on the city's track record with the current McArthur grant.

The city got a $3.5 million dollar two years ago to help reduce the prison population by a third over three years. 

"We have reached our goal of safely reducing the jail population by 34 percent a year ahead of schedule and in fact surpassed it, at 37 percent," says Wertheimer. "We are continuing several initiatives but we're also building on them and tweaking them." 

She says the most successful strategy was early bail review, which gave individuals charged with non-violent offenses, being held on bail of $50,000 or less, a chance for pre-trial release. 

"There are a lot of individuals who can be safely supervised in the community while they're awaiting trial and do not need to be incarcerated," she says. 

The city is also expanding a police assisted diversion program, that gives low level drug offenders the chance for treatment over jail.

The effort has already emptied the House of Correction, eliminating the need for a costly replacement, even as police report a seven percent drop in violent crime.

Wertheimer says the city has been extremely careful about who gets released, pre-trial.

"These are not homicide suspects," she says.

She says one of the goals in the new grant is to collect data that she believes will show the effort actually adds to safety. 

The city is requesting a total of $4.4 million.

Success would mean reducing the prison population from 8,082, where it was three years ago, to 4,041 by 2020.

"We’re proud of the work we’ve done and our newest application is indicative of a continued commitment to public safety through proactive criminal justice reform,” says Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, president judge of Common Pleas Court, a key player in the effort.

"These are exciting times," adds District Attorney Larry Krasner, who's also been instrumental. "This application represents the rededication of our efforts to keep improving our City through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.”