Just a year ago, officials feared what seemed the inevitable: a jailed population greater than 10,000.
But the count has declined each month since January, when the prisons housed an average of 9,787. The average this month is 9,342.
"Unlike the stock market, the trend is really good," Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said.
City officials discussed the shrinking figure yesterday at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Advisory Board. Chaired by Dembe and Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, the board of a dozen or so criminal-justice officials focuses on coordinating multiagency efforts to encourage efficiency in the courts and reduce crime.
Compared with the two previous years, however, Philadelphia's jail count was higher each of the last five months. The average in March was 9,501, up from 9,142 in March 2008 and 8,652 in March 2007.
Nevertheless, the month-to-month declines this year defy annual trends.
"Usually winter is a little bit lower, so it is unusual we would be below the winter numbers at the end of May," said Bob Eskind, spokesman for the Philadelphia prison system. "Typically, the population rises right up through October, drops through winter, and picks up again in spring. Right now, we're not seeing that."
While there appear to be several reasons for the drop, the main factor is an agreement between the District Attorney's Office and the state Department of Corrections that has resulted in the transfer, to the state prison at Graterford, of 173 Philadelphia inmates sentenced to two or more years.
At the same time, judges are sending fewer inmates with sentences of at least two years to Philadelphia jails: 118 such prisoners were sent to a city facility in the first four months of 2008, but just 51 in the same period this year.
Additionally, Philadelphia jail admissions this year are 425 below what they were last year through this date.