Philly D.A., Defender Association, ACLU looking to reduce prison, jail populations

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the ACLU of Pennsylvania are working with other criminal justice organizations to explore ways to reduce the jail and prison populations locally and across the state in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus.

“A COVID-19 outbreak in prison would be disastrous, and likely deadly, for incarcerated people and everyone else,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement. “For the sake of public health, immediate action to reduce prison populations across Pennsylvania is urgently needed.

COVID-19 Outbreak: Inmate advocate group calls for ‘Decarceration’ of Allegheny County Jail

“There are thousands if not tens of thousands of people in prisons across Pennsylvania who frankly should not be there, including people who are elderly, sick, have mental or physical disabilities, and who pose no threat to the public,” the district attorney added. “Jail for $750 bail and lower. These are folks that we know don’t need to be in jail because they doThis is not business as usual

Bradford-Grey added that her office was working with available community partners to either provide services or keep in contact with people who have been released who may “need a supportive network after they are released.”

The D.A.’s office and the Defender Association have been focused on release for those who have already served their minimum sentence and are eligible for parole; the elderly, ill and infirm; those serving a sentence who are worthy of early parole; those being held for pre-trial for non-violent and misdemeanor offenses who can’t afford bail; candidates for other forms of detention such as house arrest; and juvenile offenders who are deemed to pose no safety threat to the public.

Cash bail, explained: How it works and why criminal justice reformers want to get rid of it

“I have long expressed disagreement with state and local leaders who support measures to keep their prisons full, especially in parts of Pennsylvania where prisons are viewed as valuable to local economy,” Krasner said in his statement. “I implore state and local leaders to be consistent, and to take actions to protect the livelihoods and safety of people who work in prisons, their families, and their communities.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and other criminal justice organizations joined in writing a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf asking him to consider reducing the prison population using guidelines that are similar to what Krasner and Bradford Grey’s offices are recommending.

“People in Pennsylvania’s prisons are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus because so many people are housed so close together,” ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Direct Reggie Shuford wrote in the letter. “We know that people who are elderly and those who have health complications are the most susceptible. If the governor and other state officials don’t move quickly to get people out of prison, this pandemic could turn into a catastrophe inside prison walls. “

Earlier in the week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw decided to suspend the police department’s practice of arresting and jailing people for low–level, non-violent offenses. Both Bradford-Grey and Krasner’s offices support the decision.

John N. Mitchell is a columnist and reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.