PHILADELPHIA — More than 7,800 men and women sit in Philadelphia’s overcrowded jails, three-quarters of them languishing while they await trial under a bail system that critics call outmoded and that cities — and the White House — are working to change.
Hundreds in the nation’s fifth-largest city would be free, including nonviolent and first-time offenders, if there were alternatives to bail, a recent tally of the daily jail population showed. People accused of crimes here have historically faced some of the country’s longest waits for their cases to be heard, but it’s a national issue – New York has a similar problem.
It’s increasingly seen not just a moral imperative, but also as an economic one, with the costs a huge burden on municipal budgets. The Philadelphia jail system puts the cost of housing an inmate at $120 a day, or nearly a million dollars at the current jail population. For those awaiting trial, at an average of six months, the total cost would be more than $126 million.
Philadelphia and its new mayor-elect, Jim Kenney, have set an ambitious goal of cutting the jail population by a third over the next three years. The city’s jails have been at or over capacity for at least 15 years.
“We’re using jails in a way that we never have,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, an advocacy group. “These are just decisions that people are making, rather than services that are needed. What’s great in Philadelphia is that you’ve already begun a process of trying to address some of these things.”
On Thursday, the White House and Justice Department are meeting to discuss criminal justice practices, including in the bail system, that contribute to the what the administration said is a “vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that traps many Americans.”
When Kareem Chappelle was arrested in Philadelphia with less than 2 grams of crack cocaine in June 2013, he went to jail for a couple of days before he was released prior to his trial. But then he forgot his court date. A bench warrant was issued, and Chappelle turned himself in the day before Thanksgiving.
If he’d had $600 for bail, Chappelle could’ve gone home for the holiday. Instead, the first-time offender sat in jail for more than a month, missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with his girlfriend and two young sons. He also lost his home, his car and his job.
“I was thinking, ‘Couldn’t they have handled this another way?’ It just didn’t seem fair,” Chappelle said.
If changes are made, the way his story ultimately ended could be the norm.
Because Chappelle had never been arrested, he was eligible for a program called The Choice Is Yours. He was given a chance at rehabilitation as long as he got and kept a job, stayed out of trouble, checked in weekly over the next year, and avoided a felony charge and criminal record.
Now 26 and a father of three, Chappelle works as a home caregiver to mentally disabled patients. He has not been arrested since.
“I made a dumb mistake and I got caught,” Chappelle said. “I thought, ‘If I wouldn’t have come up with (bail) when I did, how long would I have been sitting there?’ It could’ve been another way, but this was a second chance.”
Philadelphia is joining cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in weighing changes to its bail system.
Leaders here are looking at who should get bail and are considering more alternatives to incarceration. And in coming weeks, the system will compete for one of 10 national grants from the MacArthur Foundation, which has a $75 million, five-year initiative aimed at reducing America’s incarcerated population.
On Philadelphia’s wish list: creating a computer model unique to the population that is focused on a defendant’s flight risk, starting more diversion programs, and expanding the electronic monitoring program and other supervised release options that would further reduce the need for cash bail.
One in three inmates is a repeat offender, said Prisons Commissioner Lou Giorla. But other issues can be addressed, he said, including the large number of inmates who use drugs or are mentally ill and could be better served elsewhere.
Philadelphia has introduced some changes in recent years, including specialty courts for mental health and veterans issues, as well as video court appearances to resolve cases more quickly.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can to reduce the pretrial wait,” said District Attorney Seth Williams, whose office is lowering severity of many charges, lowering bail for lesser crimes and focusing less on low-level cases. “My greatest concern is that the right people are in prison for the right reasons.”