Criminal Justice Reform

The Defender’s policy team leads our efforts to transform the criminal justice system through initiatives and systemic policy changes that support fair outcomes for clients, stronger, safer neighborhoods, and rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

  • Is more likely if you are a person of color, as compared to a white person, even when you have the same charges and criminal history.
  • Is associated with a 13% increase in the likelihood of pleading or being found guilty. People often feel forced to plead guilty in order to regain their freedom.
  • Leads to a 42% increase in the length of an incarceration sentence for those sentenced to prison or jail.
  • Increases the likelihood that a person will be rearrested in the future.
  • Increases the likelihood that a person will fail to appear at court.

In addition to costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year, pretrial incarceration harms people and their families in countless ways. While in jail, a person can lose his/her job, housing, children, access to medication, or public benefits. People who spend even a few days in jail can be traumatized by the experience. The loss of housing, employment, benefits, and other basic supports leaves Philadelphians and their families even more desperate. When their case is over, people found not guilty are given no assistance in repairing the harm caused by unnecessary pretrial incarceration.

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Probation detainers” are the largest driver of Philadelphia’s jail population. What are detainers? If someone on probation is charged with a new crime or even something as trivial as missing several appointments with their probation officer, they will likely have a probation detainer lodged. This detainer prevents them from being released even if they can afford their bail or would be released otherwise. They are often stuck in jail until their new case is resolved, a process that can take months. These detainers are often lodged directly by probation officers contacting court staff without a hearing or formal warrant issued by a judge.

While Philadelphia’s courts have issued a new rule on detainers, the new rule does little to prevent individuals from being jailed despite being presumably innocent. The Defender remains deeply concerned with how, when, and why detainers are used and continues to fight to deeply curtail and ultimately end their usage.

The Defender is advocating for caps on probation terms and limits on punishments for technical violations of probation or parole. This includes supporting legislation from Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams to reform our probation system and working with the Columbia Justice Lab on a groundbreaking report detailing severe over-supervision in Pennsylvania.

Locally, we have pushed to eliminate testing for marijuana by our local probation department. We also prepared a research brief for the Adult Probation and Parole Department and other stakeholders showingthat most direct violations occur within the first 12-18 months of supervision and that extensive periods of probation increase the likelihood of future recidivism.

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