The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems opened its 2018 lecture series with a recap and update on the issue of mass incarceration and Allegheny County’s efforts to stem the problem.
The program panel reported on progress coming from the University Institute of Politics’ 2015 report that noted the bulk of those incarcerated across the country are in county jails—and the bulk of those have not been adjudicated. That costs Allegheny County about $12 million a year that could be put to use on preventative and support services.
Panelist Fred Thieman, a former U.S. Attorney and president emeritus of the Buhl Foundation, reiterated that 81 percent of the people in the Allegheny County Jail actually haven’t been officially sentenced for their alleged crimes, compared to a national average of 62 percent. Of those 81 percent, most are in the Allegheny County Jail for non-violent offenses—failure to pay child support, failure to appear in court, etc.
“Most of these people are on the edge, economically, so they are least able to cope—even a few days in jail can mean loss of a job or of housing,” he said. “So how they are charged, and if they have to pay a bond is a huge factor.”
As he and co-panelist and former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg noted, one of the recommendations coming from a 2016 retreat organized to address the report’s findings was to get police, courts and prosecutors to work together to find the earliest possible opportunities to get non-violent suspects out of custody and into treatment and support services.
Some headway has been made in that regard, they said. Nordenberg noted it is tough to get uniformity when there are 133 separate police departments and 43 elected magisterial district judges in Allegheny County, but a data-driven risk assessment tool is being introduced for magistrates to follow, that should reduce reliance on the county jail to warehouse non-violent offenders. Police, he said, are also getting more mental health awareness training, again to reduce the number of individuals in the jail who should not be there.
One of the main recommendations from the 2016 retreat was to form a panel of civic experts, law enforcement, social service and medical experts who would make incarceration “fairer, and less costly,” without impacting public safety. It was also recommended that a “Criminal Justice Coordinator” be hired to report to the panel on specific practices and protocols to achieve that.
That group has been assembled and the coordinator hired—Edward Mulvey, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He was the third panelist for the Jan. 24 presentation, held at the Cathedral of Learning.
“Operationally, this is a substantial challenge,” said Mulvey. “The county has a lot of assets: community investment, committed civic leaders, great DHS department, and a lot of usable data.”
But on the other hand, the decentralized nature of the system—independent elected judges, a sense of ‘This is how it’s always been done,’ that works against us.”
However, he said, with the oversight group in place, and himself hired, they can move on to the next steps: divert people from jail; get judges to greatly reduce or eliminate cash bonds; get police and prosecutors to level fewer and lesser charges; have a public defender at every arraignment; and employ a metric to reduce variability in magistrate sentencing.
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