Philly should look west for criminal justice reform ideas | Editorial

Philadelphia Department of Prisons facilities on State Road.

This week, 6,090 people are in Philadelphia’s jails, with about one out of every five inmates serving a sentence and the rest either awaiting trial or being held on some sort of detainer.

We all pay for that. Holding people behind bars is expensive and often ineffective. Philadelphia, recognizing that, is in the third year of a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant, aiming to reduce the city’s jail population by 34 percent.

That money is wasted if people are released only to commit new crimes and end up back behind bars. With all that energy for criminal justice reform — along with a new district attorney and a mayor focused on the issue — now is the time to seek creative solutions.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in a criminal justice reform discussion Friday, told elected officials and activists in Philadelphia to look west for answers.

Specifically, Shapiro cited programs in Allegheny County that help incarcerated people lead productive lives after release and avoid recidivism through job training and placement.

Jobs, along with housing, health care, and education, are the key components for success, Shapiro said during the event at the University of Pennsylvania. The goal, Shapiro added, is to “scale up” the Allegheny approach to Philadelphia and across the state.

Shapiro is correct to take scale into account. Consider:

Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, is more than five times the size of Philadelphia in square miles but has about 340,000 fewer residents. The Allegheny County Jail population is usually around 2,200, a number Philadelphia can only dream about for now.

Shapiro pointed to Allegheny County’s Community Resource Centers, often called “one-stop shops” for reentry services. There, people can check in with a probation officer, take a court-ordered drug test, enroll for counseling or courses, and speak with a job placement service.

Allegheny County opened three CRCs from 2009 to 2015 and is considering opening a fourth.  One report cites a 29 percent reduction in recidivism rates for high-risk individuals and a 10 percent reduction in recidivism rates for medium-risk individuals.

The Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office last month selected HR&A Advisors, a New York firm that has done work for other city agencies, to develop a feasibility study on opening CRCs here. A finalized contract with the city is “imminent,” according to the Managing Director’s Office.

The other Allegheny County program cited by Shapiro involves “pre-apprenticeship classes” for inmates, followed up by more formal skills training during supervised release. This effort is overseen by a nonprofit provider that can connect trainees with unions, including the local building trades, for jobs.

The planning in Philadelphia is a little less evolved.

The Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council says it is discussing with Mayor Kenney a program similar to Allegheny County’s efforts. A spokesman for the mayor said those talks are in a “very early discussion phase.”

Philadelphia has drawn national attention with the MacArthur grant, bringing an energy to corrections reform and curiosity about solutions from other places. But we’re still lagging in results and implementation. The city needs to pick up the pace or risk squandering its momentum.