During his run for governor, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato pledged to reduce the state’s ever ballooning penitentiary price tag by changing sentencing guidelines and increasing alternative sentencing options for non-violent offenders.

He said it had been done successfully at the county level, but a report release Nov. 18 by the PEW Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Unit paints a different picture—one of increasing costs and jail population.


Of the 10 jurisdictions examined in the Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Costs report, Allegheny County saw the fourth highest cost increase, 19 percent, and the second highest population increase, 49 percent, between 1999 and 2009. African-Americans comprise just over 50 percent of the jail population.

Report author Claire Shubik-Richards notes that while spending is somewhat driven by increases in healthcare, maintenance and pension costs, without managing populations, local jurisdictions face three costly options: building more jails; adding inmates to cells, which can lead to costly litigation, and sending inmates to other jurisdictions, which can cost more than four times as much.

“The types of things that have worked involve changes in policies and procedures,” said Shubik-Richards. “The largest percentage of these populations is people awaiting trial. How many of these pre-trial inmates have to be there, and how long will it take until trial?”

Two other factors that can reduce costs and population levels are finding alternate sanction to jail for probation or parole violations and determining whether inmates serving their complete sentences can do so in state facilities.

The PEW report found that some of the largest districts examined, New York City, Fulton County Georgia, which includes Atlanta, and Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, have reduced their expenses and populations using the methods noted.

Thanks to methods that include transferring state parole violators to state custody and consolidating inmate housing units, Cook County is actually closing two jail units and projects more than $10 million in savings annually.

New York City’s jail population are at a 24-year low thanks mainly to measures aimed at reducing the number of probation violations by making probation reporting easier, increasing the use of community courts and continuing to develop its pretrial risk assessment and services to determine who needs to be held before trial.

And this year in Philadelphia, which saw the same 49 percent increase in jail population as Allegheny County for the 10-year study, the population is down by more than 1,700. The district attorney’s office has instructed its’ charging unit to be more selective in the cases and charges it prosecutes.

In April 2010, the office announced it would no longer charge low-level marijuana possession cases as misdemeanors; instead, it would treat them as summary offenses—cases that receive citations and cannot be booked into jail. The courts are expanding programs designed to reduce the time it takes to get a violation of probation heard by a judge. These efforts should reduce pretrial detentions and lengths of stay for probation violations.

Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, said they are not going to offer plea deals simply to reduce the jail population. As yet there is no move to reclassify misdemeanors as summary offenses.

District Attorney Stephen Zappala said county courts are trying to be progressive about alternate sentencing and increasing efficiencies. The county has instituted a special Drug Court, a DUI Court and a Mental Health Court which offer alternative housing and treatment for parolees.

“We spend $5 million a year on electronic release and we still have 800-1,000 people on the waiting list,” he said. “And we just started a GPS monitoring system for 43 paroled sex offenders. The cost is a fraction of incarceration.

But as long as there’s mandatory sentencing for drugs, the jail population will grow. These young people know that it’s a lot more money than they could make in business, and they are willing to risk it.”

Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin said the population he sees is mostly non-violent and dominated by repeat offenders.

“We send our violent inmates to the Penitentiary because we believe that’s where they belong. Our population doesn’t warrant that, but we see them over and over,” he said. “So we are concentrating on reducing recidivism. We have a federal Second Chance grant and foundation support to help these folks with re-entry.”

Rustin added that folks beset by homelessness, drug use, and a lack of life and job skills don’t do well when released either pending trial or on parole. He also said overlooking minor probation violations like failing to check in or having a positive drug test may not be a good idea.

“They come back with new charges. You may see a dip, but they’ll be back,” he said. “A positive urine or failure to check in may not warrant incarceration but it still needs to be looked at. Because these offenders are not the most reliable and won’t seek treatment unless forced to, and sometimes that has to be in the jail.”

The PEW report can be found at http://www.pewtrusts.org.

(For comment contact cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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