Policy Statement: Prison Population Reduction Post-Remick

Introduction

District Court Judge Gerald A. McHugh’s ruling holding Philadelphia’s prisons in contempt for for the City’s inability to provide a safe, secure, and civilized environment for our incarcerated citizens is completely justified. However, it’s a grim reminder that the Philadelphia Department of Prison’s (PDP), currently understaffed by 800 Correctional Officers, cannot ensure the safety of our citizens awaiting trial or serving sentences.

 

PDP is required to receive and hold people who have been remanded to their custody by the courts, whether they’re awaiting trial, being held on detainers for minor infractions, or serving a sentence. It is incredibly naive to think that the PDP will hire 800 corrections officers any time soon. Therefore, it is crucial that other system stakeholders, including the First Judicial District (FJD), the Department of Probation, and the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) work with us to address this humanitarian crisis.

Defender Association's Policy Recommendations

As stakeholders, we must commit to reducing the jail population. We recommend strategies to decrease reliance on county incarceration for public safety, starting with reducing or eliminating ‘short-term’ admissions to county jail. These brief stays do not improve public safety and may even decrease it by destabilizing individuals and their families. 

 

By addressing the following policies, we can reduce these admissions and decrease the jail population and strain on prisons without compromising public safety [click the + to view each recommendation]: 

 

This practice subverts due process by using an unattainably high bail amount as a proxy for holding without bail. Overusing the $1 million bail recommendation diminishes its meaning, forcing bail commissioners to make detention or release decisions without a meaningful DAO recommendation. Unable to rely on this signal, commissioners set higher bail amounts, delaying the actual decision and leading to detention until a judge reviews the bail. Many people at PDP are held initially because they cannot pay bail, often released within 14 days when bail is lowered or funds are raised. This process causes unnecessary detention, discrimination against the poor, family and community destabilization, and an overburdened prison system.

The City presented evidence that in May 2024, 49 people were admitted to jail and released the same day another 114 were released within 24 hours; 138 within two to four days; and 234 within five to fourteen days. These numbers demonstrate that these individuals are making bail quickly, resulting in unnecessary strain on the jail's limited staff and clogging the  jail admission system. The first five days in jail are the most expensive ones for the jail’s medical and other systems and research demonstrates that even periods of detention of 3 days are correlated with increased short and long term rates of re-arrest.

There are currently over 100 people sitting in jail because of a technical violation. 

Empowering bail commissioners to impose non-financial conditions of release, such as house arrest or GPS monitoring, at preliminary arraignment can prevent unnecessary detention. Although use of these tools raise other concerns, earlier access can streamline reviews and reduce detention. Currently, such conditions cannot be set until a judge reviews the initial bail. Providing these alternatives before jailing the arrestee will decrease the jail population and reduce the use of prison resources.

Many of those incarcerated people  65 or older pose no threat to public safety. They can–and should–be released safely. 

Incarcerating drug-addicted people poses significant risks to their health and safety. Providing access to these programs is crucial to reducing their incarceration. The lack of proper treatment, access to medications, and support for withdrawal symptoms and other medical issues related to substance use can lead to severe complications and death. Investment in comprehensive, community-oriented programs will ultimately reduce the cycle of addiction and incarceration.

 

Download a printable version of the policy here

 

A Shift in Mindset

Overlooking the Philly jails, an electronic billboard on I-95 advertising Eastern State Penitentiary flashes the message: “Old Prison/New Ideas.” We need to embody the spirit of this slogan if we’re going to make these and other needed changes. We also need to understand that these changes will  require a significant investment of time and resources beyond what city funds and the PDP alone can accomplish. Meaningful and lasting reform also requires a shift in mindset by other system stakeholders. We can’t continue to behave as if this is solely PDP’s crisis to solve. We need cooperation from every judicial system stakeholder to ensure we’re protecting public safety while keeping many of our citizens from ever hitting the admissions door of the jail. 

 

We need to recognize the humanity of incarcerated people, and stop treating incarcerated people like “units” to be locked away indefinitely. These are men and women with families and communities that they will eventually return to. We should ask ourselves, how will what they experience behind prison walls impact the kind of citizens they are when they go home? We must also remember that the horrible conditions in the jails don’t just impact the incarcerated. Every day that conditions don’t improve is another day of needless health and safety risks for prison employees, most of whom are Black and Brown Philadelphians. 

 

As we did during the COVID-19 emergency, the Defender Association is again ready to collaborate with our fellow stakeholders to come up with bold and creative solutions that protect the rights and lives of those in our city's custody.

 

Download a printable version of the policy here

Join Our Youth Action Board!

Are you 18-23, currently system involved, or have you transitioned out of the system? Do you have something to say? Apply to join our Youth Action Board!

 

The Youth Action Board (YAB), is a youth-led collective that aims to amplify the voices of older youth (ages 18-23) who have experienced the foster system. Together, our mission is to evoke change and bring awareness to the issues older youth face as they transition out of the system.

 

The YAB advocates for:

 

-Raising awareness for youth and connecting them with important services;

-Dismantling systemic injustice and improving legal representation;

-Encouraging services that are culturally aware, trauma informed, and courteous;

-Conflict resolution and effective communication; and

-Promoting leadership, story telling, and uplifting

 

The YAB will campaign, organize, and advise on issues strictly impacting Older Youth in child-serving systems. This group will guide how to better serve and represent youth in ways that respect their agency.

 

This is an opportunity for you to be heard and to be at the forefront of making a difference! Apply to be a part of the Youth Action Board!

 

Fill out the Youth Action Board application here

 

Download and share the Youth Action Board Flyer

 

 

The Truth about Police Stops: “Driving Equality Dashboard”

PHILADELPHIA–The Defender Association’s Police Accountability Unit (PAU) today announced the launch of its “Driving Equality Dashboard,” a free interactive website to help city residents, elected officials, organizations and the media better understand the “who, where and why” of police traffic stops and vehicle searches in Philadelphia.

 

Made possible through funding from a Microsoft and Urban Institute Catalyst Grant, the dashboard uses Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) data to allow users to track racial disparities in the PPD’s traffic enforcement, examine how traffic stops have changed over time, and learn the history and impact of the Driving Equality legislation passed by City Council and enacted in March 2022.

 

“Since City Council passed Driving Equality, there’s been some confusion about what the law actually says and does,” said the PAU’s Mike Mellon, “Our dashboard explains the law, and uses real-time data to show why it was needed.”

 

In addition to an overview of traffic stops by race, the dashboard lets users do a deeper dive, including learning the reasons police give for stops, exploring traffic stops by police district, and viewing how increases or decreases in stops in Philly neighborhoods correlates with the number of shootings over time.

 

PAU’s Paula Sen hopes citizens and justice system stakeholders will use the dashboard to clear up misperceptions about the Driving Equality law’s impact on public safety, particularly its impact on gun violence. “A lot of opponents of the law say that the police need to pull more people over and search more cars to address neighborhood shootings,” Sen said, “But when you look at the Police Department’s own data, you’ll see there’s little to no correlation between traffic stops and the number of gun crimes.”

 

Chief Defender Keisha Hudson says the Driving Equality Dashboard is an easy-to-use, interactive way for people to educate themselves about who–and why–people get pulled over in Philadelphia. “As public defenders, we know that we can’t simply accept what we’re told by law enforcement officials,” she said, “Our Police Accountability Unit has created an intuitive, comprehensive, and data-driven tool that offers information and transparency to anyone who wants the facts about police stops and the Driving Equality Law.”

 

Check out the Driving Equality Dashboard Here

 

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Defender Association Supports ACLU-PA’s Indigent Defense Lawsuit

PHILADELPHIA–The Defender Association of Philadelphia supports ACLU-PA’s lawsuit against Pennsylvania for inadequate state funding for indigent defense. In Gideon v Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled that every individual is entitled to legal counsel in court, regardless of ability to pay. But many public defender offices are so underfunded that they can’t provide proper legal representation. This isn’t just about money—it’s about justice and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their financial situation, gets the constitutionally required effective representation.

 

We appreciate Governor Josh Shapiro’s leadership in adding a $7.5 million line item for public defense in the state budget. It’s a positive step, but public defender offices still rely almost entirely on county funding. This creates a system where the quality of defense varies widely depending on where you live, leading to unequal justice.

 

Underfunded public defender offices struggle with overwhelming caseloads and insufficient resources, making it nearly impossible to meet the constitutional mandate for effective counsel. This not only harms those accused of crimes but also erodes trust in our justice system. ACLU-PA’s lawsuit aims to change this by pushing for statewide reform and adequate funding for all public defender offices.

 

We urge Pennsylvania to act now and ensure that every public defender office in the Commonwealth has the resources needed to provide effective representation. We need a justice system that works for every Pennsylvania citizen.

 

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Jr. Defenders: Making Positive Change!

We are super proud of our Junior Defenders at Gompers Middle School!

 

These young advocates have shown incredible dedication and teamwork by using collective resistance to push for better school lunches. Their efforts culminated in a powerful presentation to representatives from the Philadelphia School District.

 

Collective resistance is just one of the many initiatives we teach in our 6-week youth program. Through this program, students learn the importance of advocacy, community engagement, and standing up for their rights. The success of the Junior Defenders at Gompers Middle School is a testament to the impact of these lessons.

 

We believe that empowering youth with the skills to advocate for themselves and their communities is crucial. These young leaders have demonstrated that with the right tools and support, they can make meaningful changes in their schools and beyond.

 

Learn more about the Junior Defender program

Philly Defender wins Prestigious NLADA Honor

Congrats to our Juvenile Special Defense Chief Michelle Mason for winning a Kutak-Dodds award! Michelle was joined by Philly Defender colleagues when she received the award at the NLADA’s annual Exemplar Awards Gala in Washington, DC.

 

 

About the Award: NLADA bestows the Kutak-Dodds Prizes every year to honor the accomplishments of civil legal aid attorneys, public defenders, assigned counsel, or public interest lawyers who, through the practice of law, are significantly contributing to the enhancement of human dignity.

 

Learn more about the award here

2024 Father’s Day Bailout

This Father's Day, the Defender is working with Frontline Dads to bring home as many Father's as possible!

 

If your loved one's bail is under $50,000 and they have NO other detainers, they may qualify to be freed through the Father's Day Bailout program!

 

To apply for the Father's Day Bailout, please fill out the form below:

 

Defender Association Response to Kensington “Sweep”

PHILADELPHIA–“The Defender Association fully realizes that immediate action is needed to address the conditions in Kensington. But the City’s May 8 “sweep” of homeless people signals a return to draconian and ineffective crime and drug policies. We are also troubled by the lack of communication we have received from the city in advance of these actions. This information vacuum is particularly concerning as it potentially compromises our ability to serve our clients.

 

“To be sure, the Defender Association and the Parker Administration have very different policy perspectives. We have long believed that it’s a bad idea to rely on the criminal legal system to solve a public health crisis. The unintended harms of the planned “jail vs. treatment” strategy outweigh any derived benefits for people in addiction. The city’s action’s also threaten to overwhelm the court and jail system, and will likely shift the current problem to other neighborhoods that haven’t been receiving the same amount of attention.

 

“Despite our efforts to be included in the discussions around Kensington, the Defender Association has received little information about the city’s plans. This is troubling because our office represents a significant percentage of adult men and women from Kensington. From 2017 to 2022 we provided services for nearly 12,000 clients from this neighborhood. Getting timely details about upcoming plans is critical for preparing our attorneys and social workers to serve what will undoubtedly be an uptick in cases stemming from the increased law enforcement activity.

 

“We can discuss and debate policy. But there’s no question that anyone arrested for a crime–in Kensington or elsewhere–has a right to legal counsel. As the city’s public defender, we feel it is incumbent upon the city to include our office in any discussion that relies so heavily on our justice system.”

 

“As we work toward solutions that will benefit everyone impacted by the activities in Kensington, the Defender Association looks forward to a more open dialogue with city officials and stakeholders.”

 

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A Better Plan for Kensington

The Defender Association fully realizes that immediate action is needed to address the conditions in Kensington. But the City’s May 8 “sweep” of homeless people signals a return to draconian and ineffective crime and drug policies. We are also troubled by the lack of communication we have received from the city in advance of these actions. This information vacuum is particularly concerning as it potentially compromises our ability to serve our clients.

 

Read our full statement here. 

 

Click on any of the menu items below to learn more about the Defender's perspectives on what's really needed in Kensington:

 

Because we are responsible for legal representation and mitigation on behalf of these community members, we have been able to gain unique insight into their needs. For example, we know that:

 

Approximately 18% of our clients each year call Kensington Home.

 

Between 2017 and 2022, our office represented 11,803 adults who lived in the neighborhood.

 

The majority–53%—of our Kensington clients are White-Hispanic; 36% are Black Non-Hispanic; and only 11% of our clients in the district were White non-Hispanic.

 

They are more likely to have been involved in the child welfare system and more likely to be arrested multiple times in the five-year period than peers who reside in other districts;

 

18% of District 7 cases involve an arrestee with a child welfare history; and

 

Slightly over half of all arrests made in District 7 are people who have been arrested at least once before in the last five years.

 

Many obstacles to improving safety and quality of life are largely systemic. Our clients who reside in and near Kensington have experienced years of disinvestment and institutional discrimination. 

    Relying on the criminal legal system to solve a public health crisis doesn’t work–the same strategy has been tried–and failed–before;

     

    The “jail vs. treatment” strategy is an ineffective one, with more unintended harms than derived benefits; 

     

    There is a question as to whether we even have enough treatment beds

     

    The “sweep” threatens to overwhelm the court and jail system, not to mention stretching the caseloads of public defenders

     

    This tactic will likely shift the current problems to surrounding neighborhoods that aren't’ receiving the same level of attention and focus

    Our direct experience demonstrates that we, as a city, and an office, need to do more to serve our clients who reside in and around Kensington. The Defender Association Supports:

     

    Voluntary treatment programming;

     

    Investments in affordable housing;

     

    Pathways to employment post-recovery

     

    We are working to prioritize maintaining the integrity of Black and Brown families; 

     

    We’re building our capacity to use a place-based response system to trigger social service referrals for people who:

     

      • have multiple arrests in a one-year period, or 

     

      • reside in and around Kensington and other neighborhoods with high levels of community violence.

     

    The Defender currently staffs all the child welfare courtrooms and continues to advocate on behalf of young people seeking return to their families;

     

    We’ve established a Youth Advisory Panel;

     

    Our Junior Defender program provides 10 young people with a summer internship opportunity and next year we will prioritize slots for our previously dependent clients.

     

    We’re working to secure additional funding to: 

     

      • provide young people involved with the dependency systems opportunities to serve as peer mentors for our current child clients; 

     

      • provide every young person we represent with an individual social worker; and

     

      • provide housing navigators and educational attorneys for our youthful clients exiting placement or aging out of the foster care system

    We’re continuing to explore strategies to safely reduce the prison population

     

    Our office is working to embed trauma-centered lawyering to our practice and partnering with community organizations to serve our clients with substance use disorders and trauma histories

     

    We are currently pursuing grant funding to: 

     

      • expedite substance abuse and mental health evaluation for our incarcerated clients who often experience unnecessary delays in evaluations; and 

     

      • to embed re-entry navigators for our clients pending release on supervision from the county jail.
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