WHEN NIGHT fell on Independence Day, I stood outside with my children and watched fireworks fill the evening sky. As I did so, I contemplated the meaning of freedom here in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence.
To be sure, the definition of American freedom is complicated. It was from the very beginning, when the shackles of slavery were interwoven into the ideals of independence and democracy. Our concept of freedom remains convoluted today, as America grapples with the fact that we imprison more people than any nation on Earth.
Thankfully, there is a national push to reduce the number of people in our prisons, and it's a cause that's been championed by Republicans and Democrats alike. As I watch our city preparing to buy land on which to build a new prison, however, we seem to be out of step with that national push. We seem to be out of step with national trends, and the data indicate that we are even out of step with our own policies.
According to a 2010 Pew report dubbed "Philadelphia's crowded, costly jails: The Search for Safe Solutions," Philadelphia's inmate population was decreasing at that time, but drug arrests by the police and increasing bail from the courts made for longer prison stays and more money being spent to maintain overcrowded jails.
The Nutter administration said at the time that there were ways to reduce the prison population without compromising public safety. I believe that was true in 2010, and I believe it's still true today. But we have to actually do something to address that truth. Otherwise, the costs of Philadelphia's municipal prisons - which stand at $243 million a year and counting - will simply continue to increase.
So, how do we reduce the prison population without endangering the citizenry? We start by reducing the amount of time people spend in prison before going to trial.
According to Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla, about 75 percent of inmates in Philadelphia's prisons are pre-trial. And many of them have several things in common. Among them is their inability to pay bail. Another is their lack of high-school diplomas. Yet another commonality is the fact that many are awaiting trial on misdemeanors - charges like disorderly conduct, loitering, simple assault and some minor thefts.
If we can find ways to allow those charged with nonviolent crimes to await trial at home, we won't need a new prison. And don't tell me it's not possible to release prisoners safely. It's not only being discussed on the national level, it's also being done.
President Obama has gone beyond the overhaul of sentencing guidelines that characterized his first term. He is now preparing to issue clemency orders to release dozens of federal prisoners jailed for nonviolent drug offenses.
Lest you believe that this is some liberal effort, the Koch Brothers, businessmen who've put millions behind conservative Republican candidates, also have jumped in, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organization with ties to the White House and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Those disparate groups are working together to reduce prison populations for different reasons. Liberals believe it's wrong to imprison people for seemingly minor offenses, and they are concerned about data that show racial disparities in sentencing. Conservatives are concerned with the bottom line. Prisons cost taxpayers too much, and there is no real return on the investment.
The MacArthur Foundation also is working to reduce the prison population. Philadelphia is one of 20 municipalities to receive a $150,000 planning grant from the foundation to develop prison reduction strategies. If Philadelphia's plan is one of the 10 best, our city can receive $2 million a year to implement that plan.
The bottom line is that we need fewer prisons, not more. And if Philadelphia can jump in front of that trend, our city can reprise its role as the center of American freedom and once again establish ourselves as the birthplace of independence.