- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Positive Steps for our Justice System
Last week, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative released a report on Philadelphia’s prison population. The report, “Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions,” comes to some important conclusions, and I would encourage everyone to check it out.
As part of the release of the report, Pew and Penn Law had a really amazing event last week, examining the findings of the report. There was a panel that included Seth Williams, Everett Gillison, Michael Jacobson, Director of NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice and the Rev. Ernest McNear. And in the audience, audience, asking and answering questions were a pretty amazing array of people, from Ellen Greenlee, Pamela Dembe, the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and Seamus McCaffery, to Third Circuit Chief Judge, Ted McKee and Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla.
I believe the event was taped, and when I find a link I will put it up. It really was something to have a gathering of so many stakeholders and judges, that a submitted question from the audience comes from the Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
What was amazing was that there really was some very broad agreement the most important conclusion of the study:
One conclusion that emerges—and is shared by many in the city’s criminal justice system—is that the size of the population in the Philadelphia Prison System is largely within the power of policy makers to control and likely can be further reduced without jeopardizing public safety.
How can this be done? The report lists a number of important policies, which will take leadership in instituting, because they seem somewhat counterintuitive.
First, the report suggests that we simply may want to release a number of suspects on their own recognizance (without bail), as many other cities do. As the report notes, and Mr. Jacobson discussed, DC and New York release a higher number of people without bail, and yet, defendants appear for court at a higher rate.
Second, we should resist the temptation to throw people in jail for technical violations of their probation, and instead figure out some alternative punishment. As Mr. Jacobson again noted, when you defund your probation and parole systems, overworked officers simply do the easiest thing: throwing people in jail as soon as they see a violation. They are too busy to do anything else.
Third, divert non-violent people with addiction or mental health issues out of our prison systems.
All of these are easier said than done, especially when you tell a public that is already freaked over crime, that you are going to release more people, let more people out of jail without bail, have to build more day centers, etc. But, that is what leadership is about right? Again, I would encourage everyone to check out the report.
Then, yesterday, the Inquirer had a story about the DA’s efforts to modernize their data systems, and do things like actually track outcomes:
During her 18 years in office, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham insisted she would not "do justice by the numbers." And the Philadelphia court system's administrator, David C. Lawrence, similarly said, "We're not in the research business."
That meant overall conviction rates for violent-crime cases in the Philadelphia courts were unknown - until The Inquirer drew on raw court data to report that nearly two-thirds of all defendants accused of violent crimes walked free of all charges.
Abraham's successor, District Attorney Seth Williams, has now obtained a $492,000 grant to equip his office with software that, for the first time, will be able to routinely produce conviction data.
Eventually, his office plans to make the results publicly available on what it says will be a greatly retooled office website.
As the article notes, it’s not just the ability to track conviction rates, but the reason for which those convictions potentially fail, and other important data.
Frankly, I agree with my friend Lynne Abraham in a sense: You cannot do justice purely by numbers. But, that sure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect the data, or that this is simply academically interesting (as David Lawrence suggests). Examining data will not only let prosecutors or defenders see where their respective success rates lie, but will also let all of us analyze the system for systemic failures, and even hidden abuses. On the police side of things, NYC is a constant example of why we should want data:
Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police in New York City in 2009, but, once stopped, were no more likely to be arrested. The more than 575,000 stops of people in the city, a record number of what are known in police parlance as “stop and frisks,” yielded 762 guns.
Of the reasons listed by the police for conducting the stops, one of those least commonly cited was the claim that the person fit the description of a suspect. The most common reason listed by the police was a category known as “furtive movements.”
Ah, the old furtive movement… Anyway, numbers matter. This doesn’t mean we ignore basic principles of our justice system. But, in 2010, we absolutely should be measuring outcomes, and collecting information that allows us to see the best and worst parts of our justice system.
And finally, in another piece of the article, there is a little snippet that a public interest lawyer anywhere can appreciate:
In the future, Philadelphia prosecutors should be able to update their cases, issuing subpoenas and swapping information with defense lawyers during pretrial discovery, with a few keystrokes.
Whether they are defenders, prosecutors, or civil legal aid attorneys- public interest attorneys are forced to spend times on things that shouldn’t take nearly as long as they do, because there is not the same level of support staff as at a firm, and because it is hard to justify big investments in technology. So, something like this just makes so much sense.
And, as Ellen Greenlee notes, it cannot be only the DA’s who make these advances:
Ellen Greenlee, director of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which provides representation for those too poor to hire a lawyer, said her staff needed to upgrade its technology as well.
"We're still on paper," she said. "For the system to function at all, it's necessary for all the stakeholders to communicate. They can't let us lag behind."
Sorry for the rambling. Between seeing just about every stakeholder at the Pew event, for the release of a really hopeful report about reducing the number of people in jail, to the District Attorney actually tracking outcomes, the last week has been a hopeful one for our criminal justice system.