Criminal justice reform takes three big steps forward

Allegheny County Jail


by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer

In 2016, when the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics’ Criminal Justice Reform task force issued its initial report on the state of the county system, it found that most of the inmates in the Allegheny County Jail hadn’t even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted.

It also found that most of those inmates were poor and minority residents who were unable to meet cash bonds leveled by district magistrates at preliminary arraignments where those charged had no legal representation.

Some of those so affected experienced either the loss of jobs, or housing, even custody of children. The report made several recommendations to address this and other front-end inequities and some have already been implemented. But now, in its Fall 2019 Progress Panel report, the institute has announced that three philanthropic foundations are providing funds to add additional legal and administrative support where it is needed—at the front end.

A $2 million national grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will assist in the hiring of: Three new public defenders who will expand representation at preliminary arraignments, particularly on evenings and weekends when there had been no coverage; one pretrial supervision officer and one pretrial supervision officer and one pretrial investigator to increase the number of people assessed for pretrial risk; two senior screener assistant district attorneys for the pretrial screening unit to improve the rate at which cases are ready to proceed at formal arraignment; one probation manager to coordinate early probation terminations and detainer resolutions and to serve as a liaison to 14 Court of Common Pleas judges; and one project director.

During a “pilot period,” involving public defenders appearing at roughly 250 preliminary arraignments, the report said there was a 17 percent decrease in the use of money bail, a 19 percent increase in the frequency of agreement between magisterial district judges’ decisions and pretrial recommendations, an 8 percent decrease in jail bookings at the time of the preliminary arraignment, and a narrowing of racial gaps in jail bookings.

Part of reducing incarceration involves diversion for non-violent defendants with mental health and addiction needs, but there is a shortage of diversion options, especially for indigent defendants. But reducing incarceration will free up space in the county jail. A $10 million grant over three years from the Pittsburgh Foundation will help the institute team explore the best options for repurposing jail space. A separate $350,000 grant will fund work to identify and address the causes of the racial disparity found in the jail population—as of Sept. 24, it is 60 percent Black, despite the Black population of Allegheny County being just over 12 percent.

While the county’s MacArthur Foundation grant application found racial disparities at “every stage of the system,” the bulk, again, appears at the front end: “White defendants are 33 percent less likely to have an on-view arrest on their charges than Black defendants; White defendants are 41 percent less likely to be sentenced to a jail sentence (on the same charges) than Black defendants; Judges are 22 percent less likely to concur with pretrial’s ROR (release on recognizance) recommendation and 10 percent less likely to concur with pretrial’s non-monetary (bail) recommendation for Black defendants than for White defendants, and overall, Black defendants spend an average 21 more days in the jail than White defendants.”

The Buhl Foundation has been working with police to address the arrest and charging disparities through its One Northside Initiative since 2014. It involves specialized training for officers and residents, diversion for young adults involved in non-violent crimes, and replacing traditional police stations with safety centers such as the one opened in Northview Heights in 2018.

MARK NORDENBERG, the former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

With these additional resources going to implement recommendations made by the institute and its task force, Institute Chair Mark Nordenberg is hopeful about the future.

“We were very careful about structuring this process, and it appears to be working just as we hoped it would,” he said in a Sept. 18 press announcement. “Almost all of the goals currently being pursued can be linked to recommendations that we made in the original Task Force Report.”

The full Progress Panel update can be found at


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