Abraham wants to feed the addiction

Philadelphia has a problem. We're addicted to spending money on the criminal justice system. And, like all addictions, the habit is hard to quit. The budget crisis-- which should prompt all agencies and departments to consider dramatic reform-- has done little to shake entrenched attitudes about spending on cops, courts, and prison.

That latest example was on display Tuesday during the budget hearing for the District Attorney's office. DA Lynne Abraham blasted Mayor Michael Nutter for proposing a $7 million reduction from her $32 million budget. According to Abraham, the budget cut will force her to layoff more than 100 prosecutors and support staff. The district attorney returned to a troubling refrain that we've heard from other parts of the prison industrial complex: if you slash my budget, costs will go up in other areas.

Abraham testified that the reduction would cause a major backlog in cases. That would keep more inmates in jail for longer periods of time, even people who are simply awaiting trial and haven't been convicted of anything. She also said that further budget cuts would jeopardize programs like community court, mental health court, drug treatment court, and DUI court. All of these emphasize alternatives to incarceration and are potential tools to reduce the prison population.    

This is the  mantra we heard from First Judicial District during their budget hearing. The courts  said the same programs were on the chopping block and would be eliminated if their funding was cut. At the time, members of City Council expressed appropriate concern about eliminating these initiatives. They were less vocal with Abraham, but the same logic ought to apply.

Philadelphia's prison population and related costs is one of the driving factors behind our fiscal crisis. Right now, we spend about 25% of our total $4 billion city budget on criminal justice related costs. An analysis by “It's Our Money” found that it costs $98.49 per day to keep an inmate behind bars. If we could keep our prison population under 9,700, we could save almost $3.75 million annually. Cutting programs that have the potential to reduce the number of prisoners in our jails simply makes no sense during a fiscal crisis.

Of course, there is some legitimacy in Abraham's concerns. The police department did not see a reduction in their budget and it seems likely that arrests will stay at the same level. In fact, new crime-fighting initiatives such as “Pressure Point” might increase the number of people being charged and entering the system. Abraham charged at the hearing that Nutter has not fully considered the implications of his budget plan.

Still, the hearing was discouraging. Not only because Abraham reiterated the same talking points we've heard from other institutions drastically in need of reform, but because the acrimony between Abraham and Nutter undermines the collaboration that will be needed to get criminal justice costs under control.