Allegheny County aims to cut jail population by 20 percent with $2M grant
Allegheny County will receive $2 million from the MacArthur Foundation to help reform the area’s criminal justice system, officials said this week.
The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $148 million national initiative to aiming to lower incarceration rates by changing the overall function of jails.
“The concept behind the initiative is we can address our over-incarceration, which is a national issue, at a local level,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said during a press conference to announce the grant Thursday.
The goal, he said, is to reduce the average daily population by 20 percent over the next two years.
He cited national numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that the number of people in local jails tripled between 1985 and 2014 – something that costs taxpayers money. Locally, he said, the population of the Allegheny County Jail has increased by 70 percent – “even at a time when crime rates have fallen,” he said.
The rise can be attributed in part to the rise of monetary bail and bonds, which keep low-risk offenders in jail while they await trial.
Fitzgerald also acknowledged the jail’s racial disparity: 13 percent of the county’s population is African American, though African Americans make up 49 percent of the jail’s population.
Allegheny County is among 13 jurisdictions to receive funding based on their goals and what they’ve done so far. The county has made public defenders available from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays to assist defendants during preliminary arraignment in Pittsburgh Municipal Court.
“Not having representation can have a substantial impact on the jail population,” Fitzgerald said. “The presiding judge often decides whether a defendant will be held in jail, required to pay bail … or be released pending trial.”
He said access to public defenders has reduced the use of cash bail by 19 percent and jail bookings by 18 percent, and some of the grant money will go toward making public defenders available on nights and weekends – something that could continue those downward trends.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said the grant will mean his office can put two more attorneys in pre-trial screening. That will help cut the time from a preliminary hearing to formal arraignment from eight weeks to less than five weeks, he said.
Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Manning said how the use of jail has long been a focus for reform.
“The court is committed to reducing the jail population without affecting public safety,” he said. “Public safety is always the most important thing.”
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.