The final presenter of the workshop was the district attorney of Philadelphia, Larry Krasner. Since assuming his position on January 1, 2018, several months before the workshop, Krasner had been working on the “twin evils of mass incarceration and mass supervision”—and there is “much to be done,” he said. According to independent assessments, Pennsylvania has some of the worst problems of excessive parole and probation supervision of all the states in the nation. During the time when the
rest of the country saw a 500 percent increase in its incarcerated population, Pennsylvania saw a 700 percent increase. Until recently, Philadelphia had the largest incarcerated population of the 10 largest cities in the United States. Past district attorneys have used their positions to further their careers by being tough on crime. Aided by journalism that profits from sensational stories that are not representative of an overall decline in crime, politicians have built jail cells to get votes while simultaneously disenfranchising the people being put in prison. “It is a formula that has worked for a very long time,” Krasner said.
Krasner led an effort to identify 26 crimes that can be characterized as not being violent, not involving sexual assault, not involving a felon in possession of a firearm, and not involving high-level, white-collar crime. For those crimes, such as public drunkenness, retail theft, and breaking into cars, his office is using its discretion to recommend that cash not be an aspect of bail. For these cases, bail is typically between zero and $1,000, which is “not all that much money unless you’re broke.” This was a way to see that poor people do not necessarily stay in jail while people with resources get out.
Washington, DC, adopted a similar program, he noted, where cash is not permitted to be part of the bail process. People are either detained, which happens to about 12 percent of people—those who are considered to be dangerous or unlikely to show up for a trial—while the other 88 percent are released with support in the community to deal with the issues they have. This system has been very effective in getting people to go to court and has not produced new levels of violent crime.
Another step Krasner has taken is to examine the discriminatory effects of sentencing guidelines. Pennsylvania has sentencing guidelines that judges need to consider, though they do not need to strictly adhere to them. But these sentencing guidelines were developed by averaging the sentences from all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties without weighting for different population sizes, which has resulted in sentencing guidelines that are inappropriate for large cities like Philadelphia. Instead, for the 26 crimes identified as being non-violent, guilty pleas are being offered for sentences that are below the bottom end of the sentencing guidelines.
REDUCTIONS IN THE INCARCERATED POPULATION
The result of these and other reforms has been a notable increase in the number of people being released from incarceration. From a total
of more than 8,000 in the recent past, the incarcerated population in Philadelphia had been lowered to 5,100, and Krasner predicted that this population could soon be in the 4,000s and possibly in the low 4,000s. “That approximates the goal of organizations like #cut50, which advocates for a 50 percent reduction in jail populations.”
A separate discussion is needed for the 13,000 Philadelphians who are incarcerated, some of them for life sentences, in the state system, Krasner observed. This population has seen slight declines, though Krasner warned that it could increase if judges come under pressure to get people out of county jails.
Initiatives to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated will depend on the rate of recidivism. Low recidivism will help create the political will to do what people want to do, which is putting money into public schools, public health, and economic development and treating addiction rather than simply punishing it. “That’s why reentry and everything that goes with it is so essential to what we are trying to do,” Krasner said. Yet, the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is failing in this regard, he added. For people under probation and parole for high-level and mid-level crimes, the recidivism rate is approximately 50 percent within 2 years.
Krasner discussed a system known as restorative justice that has shown promising results. Under an organization called Impact Justice in Oakland, California, young people who have committed fairly serious crimes, such as unoccupied burglaries at homes, are selected at random and then meet with either the victim or representative of the victim. He explained:
Everything that is said is off the record, and the kid usually has a bad day, because there’s a whole lot of talk from the victim about the impact that the crime had and the damage that was done in different ways. It could be something as simple as “I had to pay $146 to fix my window,” [or it could be] “every time I come home I’m frightened that there’s somebody in the house.”
The result of the conversation is a contract that requires accountability of the person who committed the crime in lieu of charges. The young person avoids having a criminal record if the contract, which may require repaying the victim, an educational obligation, or some other responsibility, is fulfilled. The level of recidivism of these juveniles is much lower than those who go through the conventional system, said Krasner, and the victims are happier. This system has attracted attention around the country and is now being adopted elsewhere.
To pursue initiatives such as this, district attorneys’ offices need to partner with foundations and other nonprofit organizations to secure funding. For example, in expanding to other cities, Impact Justice is working through separate nonprofit organizations that work closely with district attorneys’ offices. In addition, the state receives money from the federal government gathered from corporate and white-collar crimes, and this money has gone toward several successful initiatives.
Reforms also require buy-in from the city, which he has received, Krasner said. The mayor has supported community user engagement sites, reductions in jail populations, and changing marijuana possession from a misdemeanor offense to a summary citation—“We definitely have an ally in the mayor’s office.” This level of support makes possible such activities as developing metrics regarding public safety, diverting cases at the front end of incarceration, and supporting reentry at the back end.
The police are part of the solution, too, Krasner said. They are becoming much more sensitive to issues around mental health and drug addiction than they have been. “There are more police officers who would like to see people who are suffering from addiction going to treatment.” Especially among younger officers, many would like to take more of a public health approach, putting resources into treatment, job training, mental health, and so on. He said:
It’s not the fault of police that they have become the first responders to mental health issues, but that’s what they are. It’s not the fault of police that mental health facilities have disappeared to be replaced by jails, but that’s what has happened.
A particularly poignant example involves homicide detectives who are trying to deal with a family’s trauma while solving homicides quickly. “These officers would really appreciate having a more trauma-informed and trauma-centered approach to what they are doing, because they could be better at the jobs that they are trying to do.”
CHANGES IN SUPERVISION
Violations of parole are an “enormous contributor to mass incarceration,” said Krasner. Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country for excessive supervision, which in many cases is itself a cause of crime, Krasner observed. If someone under supervision skips a meeting with a parole officer to avoid being fired from a job, he or she can be detained and locked up. A person with marijuana in his or her blood in the 5th or 6th year of parole would not have violated parole if it had ended at 3 years.
Krasner said that his office was considering a policy of recommending periods of supervision—parole followed by probation—that are not to
exceed 3 years. A complementary approach would be to terminate probation and parole in certain categories of cases. With 44,000 people under supervision in Philadelphia, parole officers are “totally overwhelmed,” said Krasner. “They have very limited ability to concentrate on the ones who really do need supervision.” Krasner briefly described a boxer in Philadelphia who committed a serious crime when he was young, served his time in prison, and then was supervised for 25 years, during which time he became a well-known and successful promoter. He said:
He always reported, never had anything in his blood, never got into a fight over a parking space, he managed to do that, but was it a good plan? I suggest respectfully it was not. That’s just excessive. It doesn’t make any sense…. If they’d stopped his supervision after 3 years or 5 years, he wouldn’t have violated, and he didn’t violate after 25. It didn’t benefit anybody, except maybe it employed another state parole officer.
BARRIERS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Politics remain an issue in making such changes, Krasner observed. Crime has been declining nationally since 1992, but people in surveys consistently report that they think crime is increasing, and media depictions can make such attitudes worse. “Nobody expects that an oncologist will save every single cancer patient. But the newspaper does expect that a judge will never release someone who commits a homicide.”
Despite such obstacles, Krasner was optimistic that initiatives such as the ones he has undertaken can alter the historical trajectory. “There are changes going on in Philadelphia,” he said.
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