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How Philadelphia Cut Jail Count 40%; Lessons For Other Cities

Jail incarceration continues to be a main driver of U.S. mass incarceration. Racial disparities in local jail populations are significant, particularly for Black people. Involvement in the criminal justice system, even when brief, can have severe consequences, including barriers to employment and housing, poor physical and mental health stemming from chronic stress and limited access to health care, and disruptions to family relationships and social support networks.

To address these issues, Philadelphia adopted a reform plan supported by the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) to reduce its jail population and associated racial and ethnic disparities.

Since 2015, Philadelphia has significantly reduced its jail population through these efforts, which included closing a jail, launching a strategy across decision points in the justice system, strengthening collaboration and cross-agency partnerships, starting a committee to represent community perspectives, and analyzing data to identify racial and ethnic disparities across decision points, the Urban Institute says in a new report.

This study describes Philadelphia’s strategies, documents how it navigated challenges and advanced reform efforts, and explores the perceived impacts of these strategies on its efforts to engage community members, reduce jail use, and implement system reforms improving equity.

Successes from the project included increased collaboration and relationship building across justice agencies in Philadelphia and increased coordination with nonjustice agencies, a reduction of the jail population by more than 40 percent, the development of strategies to address probation violations, and the development of a community advisory committee, the city's first, to engage community members in public discussions of the issues.

The challenges included collaboration and aligning strategic goals across agencies, limited staffing capacity and labor-intensive strategies, designing strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, and public perceptions of recent violent crime increases that lead to reform pushback.

The report concluded that it is possible to reduce jail populations significantly in large cities with comprehensive, cross-agency collaboration; that such jail population reductions do not necessarily mean racial and ethnic disparities will decrease; that "reform fatigue" is a reality for long-term initiatives and can make it difficult for stakeholders to sustain efforts; and that meaningful community engagement requires educating stakeholders and community members.

Separately, a new Brookings Institution report previously featured in Crime and Justice News shows that Philadelphia's Center City is one of the safest corners of town, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Even compared to the other cities, Center City is incredibly safe,” said Brookings co-author Hanna Love. Despite the research, sensationalized television news coverage and context-free videos shared on social media are driving perceptions about uncontrollable crime in Philadelphia and other major cities.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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