Eliminating Philadelphia's cash bail system, a pretrial intervention that keeps thousands of people incarcerated for minor offenses, could save the city as much as $75 million annually, according to a new report from outgoing City Controller Alan Butkovitz.
An economic impact study released last week outlines the cumulative costs, both financial and social, of maintaining a facet of the criminal justice system that reformers feel has become outmoded and ineffective.
“It costs the city tens of millions of dollars every year to house individuals waiting for trials involving vandalism, fraud and drug abuse,” said Controller Butkovitz. “This can cause more damage on the incarcerated and their families and places a financial strain on the justice system.”
Butkovitz estimates removing cash bail would drop Philadelphia's prison population from about 6,500 inmates to less than 4,700, sustaining the steady progress in reductions aided by a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant.
According to the controller's review, approximately 33 percent of 4,359 total offenders held pretrial in Philadelphia’s jails are there because they can't afford cash bail. One in three of those inmates could be released on less than $5,000.
If Philadelphia is able to bring its prison population under 5,000, Butkovitz said the city could shut down its House of Corrections and Detention Center, both aging facilities whose costs eclipse potential cash bail payments.
“Eliminating the direct costs alone would allow Philadelphia to focus more of its resources on reducing recidivism and reentry programs,” said Controller Butkovitz.
Over the past several years, momentum has been building in Philadelphia to adopt key aspects of the no-bail system that has been in place in Washington, D.C. for more than two decades. The city's rehabilitative model focuses on alternative forms of justice including regular monitoring and other parole-like programs.
Backed by more than a dozen organizations committed to reform, Philadelphia District Attorney candidate Larry Krasner, the favorite in next month's municipal election, campaigned on a platform to eliminate cash bail in favor of a more progressive system.
On the legislative side, reform efforts have been spearheaded by City Councilman Curtis Jones, whose supporters believe the aim is to save both souls and money.
"The shift is pretrial," Jones told PhillyVoice last year. "We want to start addressing whatever is wrong with you before you actually go to court. You're never going to fix whatever is wrong with you, if you don't start addressing it now."
To realize savings, Butkovitz's report suggests putting low-risk offenders to work in construction and service industries and shifting to a system that prioritizes citations over arrests.
“The city must restructure, reinvest and remove barriers for true reform to occur,” said Controller Butkovitz. “Philadelphia needs to look to the future and close antiquated, unsafe and costly facilities, while developing preventative programs that deter youth from crime.”
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