Ending Mass Incarceration in Pennsylvania

Mass incarceration, the imprisonment of large numbers of people for long periods of time, is an utter failure as public policy. It has a devastating impact on those who become ensnared in the criminal justice system, with life-long consequences even for those who are arrested but never convicted of a crime. Mass incarceration disproportionately harms poor communities of color and devastates families even as it fails to produce a proportional increase in public safety.

The Campaign for Smart Justice recently partnered with the Urban Institute to publish a Blueprint for Smart Justice in Pennsylvania, which details a number of key statistics and trends in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system while offering policy suggestions to put the commonwealth on track to achieve the Campaign for Smart Justice's goals. You can view or download the Blueprint here >>

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Mass incarceration in Pennsylvania
How we solve the crisis
Ending cash bail
Prosecutorial reform
Probation and parole reform
Sentencing reform

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is an unprecedented, multiyear effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system. We are working in all 50 states for reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America.

The Facts about Mass Incarceration in Pennsylvania

  • Pennsylvania has the fifth largest population of incarcerated people and the third largest population of people under carceral control (including those on parole and probation) in the country;
  • Pennsylvania has the highest incarceration rate in the northeast;
  • Pennsylvania has both the highest number (112,351) and rate (1,109 per 100,000 adults) of parole supervision in the United States;
  • Black Pennsylvanians are 8.9 times more likely and Latinos 3.3% more likely to be incarcerated than white Pennsylvanians.

How do we fix our fix our broken criminal justice system?

Now is the time for common sense, bipartisan reform—solutions that have worked to reduce prison populations without compromising public safety in other states. We can’t afford to wait—the human and financial costs of mass incarceration are too high.

Ending Cash Bail

Nobody should be incarcerated simply because they are poor, but that’s exactly what cash bail does, keeping low-income people locked up while wealthier people can buy their way out of jail.

One of the most basic principles underlying our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence - that one is “innocent until proven guilty.” Keeping people in jail solely because of their poverty before they have been found guilty of any offense flips this fundamental presumption on its head.

A 2016 report found that in Pennsylvania across all offenses, Black defendants are more likely to receive a monetary bail decision especially when charged with a weapons offense; 33 percent of white defendants charged with felony weapons offense were assigned cash bail compared with 78 percent of Black defendants charged with similar offenses.

Academic studies and real-world examples have shown time and again that implementing cash bail doesn’t improve public safety in our communities or reduce the likelihood that someone will fail to appear in court.

Ending cash bail does not mean eliminating pretrial detention for those people accused of a crime whose release will endanger another person or pose a potential flight risk — there are other mechanisms available for pretrial detention that don’t involve cash bail.

Cash bail is outdated, ineffective, and unjust. We are working to end cash bail and reduce pretrial detention.

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Prosecutorial Reform

District attorneys and the prosecutors they lead must use their extraordinary power to seek justice, not convictions, and be transparent about how their offices operate.

District attorney’s offices are notorious for being “black boxes.” Little information beyond conviction rates is typically gathered or made public. This lack of transparency prevents the public, and even the DA office itself, from knowing what decisions are being made or the outcomes of those decisions. Fully transparent practices improve decision-making, allow the public to hold the elected DA accountable, and enable the public to push the DA in other areas in the future. District attorneys should collect and regularly post online statistical information and furthermore, commit to addressing the racial bias and disparities revealed in the data, whether it is perpetuated by prosecution or police.

Prosecutors should post on website, and if necessary, develop written standards that guide assistant district attorneys’ decision-making in all the above areas. Create policies that protect the rights and dignity of people with marginalized identities; for example, respect the stated gender identity of all who enter the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors should address racial disparities in charging decisions, bail recommendations, diversionary program placements, and plea bargains. Communicate appropriate conduct to police and enforce those standards by not pursuing unfounded or inappropriate charges and investigating and charging police misconduct.

The district attorney is the most powerful person in the criminal justice system. They make decisions that impact what charges a person will face, what evidence is considered at trial, and the length of a person’s sentence, if found guilty. Since district attorneys are elected officials, they are accountable to their constituents. Communities across the state are calling on district attorneys to use that power to end mass incarceration.   

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Probation and Parole Reform

Most states limit the length of time someone can be kept on probation to five years or less; Pennsylvania does not. Pennsylvania is only of only eight states that does not impose a cap on the number of years a person can be put on probation.

Parole and probation rules are particularly harsh, often ensnaring people who have already served their time in a vicious cycle of minor violations of parole or probation that leads to another pretrial detention and, at best, a restarting of the probation or parole term.

In 2016, more people were admitted to state prison for parole revocations than for any other new crime; people charged with parole revocations made up more than half (52.5%) of all people admitted to state prison. The 107 percent increase in admissions to PA state prison between 2005 and 2016 was driven by a 189 percent increase in admissions due to parole violations, while new court commitments increased by 61 percent.

As of February 2018, 58 percent of the people in Philadelphia’s jails were incarcerated as a result of detainers.  These people, not been found guilty of any new crime, sit in limbo for months awaiting the resolution of their new case or a hearing before their original sentencing judge.

When looking at the state’s total correctional control over its citizens (including both incarceration and community supervision), in 2015, with approximately 375,000 people under correctional control, Pennsylvania had more people under correctional control than the entire population of Pittsburgh (305,928).

Probation and parole drive Pennsylvania’s mass incarceration crisis and are in dire need of reform.

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Sentencing Reform

Mandatory minimums have long proven to be ineffective and unjust, yet Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering implementing them back into sentencing guidelines.

Pennsylvania sentences more people to life without parole than any other state in the country but one and is only one of six states that deny parole to those sentenced to life in prison.

The Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission is considering the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing, giving judges a mathematical formula that proponents claim can predict future criminality. This tool would only deepened racial disparities in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. Judges should make sentencing decisions on a case by case basis.

Nobody should be sentenced to die in prison, but that is what life without parole amounts to: an effective death sentence.

Extreme laws and policies like mandatory minimums, the death penalty, and death by incarceration (life without parole) drive extraordinarily long prison terms and send too many people, overwhelmingly people of color, to jail and prison.

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