Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

Summary

Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania encompasses the Pittsburgh metropolitan area and is the state’s second-largest county. The county has a long history of working to improve the operation of the criminal justice system, including developing evidence-based offender reentry programming, implementing a locally-validated pretrial assessment tool, and building dashboards that integrate various data to monitor key points in the criminal justice system. Key stakeholders convene to review real-time data and use it as a basis for decision making and problem solving. Through this effort, Allegheny County has come to more clearly understand the main drivers of the jail population and has taken data-driven action to safely reduce this population. This has resulted in projects to test jail population reduction strategies, such as a pilot for the Public Defender to provider representation at preliminary arraignment. The pilot resulted in an estimated 2,216 fewer jail bed days during the first six months of implementation.

To build on past efforts, Allegheny County was awarded $2 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2018 to implement strategies that address the main drivers of the local jail population in the area, including unfair and ineffective practices that take a particularly heavy toll on people of color, low-income communities, and people with mental health and substance abuse issues.

To continue safely reducing the jail population, the county plans to implement at least seven key strategies aimed at addressing system inefficiencies and disparities, reducing length of stay in the jail, better meeting the needs of those with behavioral health and substance abuse issues, and increasing access to non-jail options for lower-risk offenders. These strategies include expanding public defense, diverting individuals to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, expediting the resolution of cases involving people detained for probation violations, improvements to case processing efficiency, expanding and enhancing pretrial services, and increased community engagement.

  • For many years, Allegheny County has been committed to making improvements to the local justice system. Though there has been marked progress, the data shows there is still more to be done to address disparities and to more efficiently process cases.
  • Admissions to the jail are down, but lengths of stay are up. From 2000 to 2018, the average length of stay at the jail increased from 38 to 70 days.
  • The overuse of the jail takes an especially heavy toll on people of color. Despite making up only 13% of the local population, African Americans make up 49% of the jail population.
  • The average length of supervision is 42 months, which is significantly longer than the national average of 22 months.
  • Roughly 75% of the jail population has been identified as having a mental health or substance abuse issue. Those with a history of mental health treatment spend an average of 14 days longer in jail than those without that background.
  • Overuse of detention causes disruption in the stability of arrestees’ families and communities; it leads to higher re-arrest rates; and produces worse case outcomes with more back-end incarceration. 53% of men and 61% of women in the Allegheny County Jail are parents.
  • To continue reducing the jail population safely, the county plans to implement seven key strategies aimed at addressing system inefficiencies and disparities, reducing length of stay and admissions, and better meeting the needs of those with behavioral health and substance abuse issues.
  • Strategies include: improvements to case processing efficiency, expanding public defense, diverting individuals to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, and expanding and enhancing pretrial services. Local stakeholders will also continue to evaluate the data dashboards for points of disparity to keep improving and effecting change.
  • One strategy to improve case processing efficiency is to simultaneously resolve new charges and probation violations, which should, on average, reduce the time that detainees are held in the jail by 65 days.
  • Individuals with severe mental illness typically stay in jail an additional 46 days after being cleared for release because they are waiting for treatment beds. Allegheny County will develop a new treatment housing option to expedite the release of these individuals from jail.
  • The county will also begin implementing additional strategies to reduce disparities and more deeply involve the community in local justice system reform. Our goal is to have a jail that is physically changed and, when it is, will also consider using unneeded space for other public goods that improve safety and justice.

Supported with $2 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge, Allegheny County will implement forward-looking, smart solutions, to further reduce the local jail population by 20% over the next two years.

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