Allegheny County again awarded funding in Safety and Justice Challenge

Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark

The New Pittsburgh Courier has learned that Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark announced on Feb. 9 that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has again awarded Allegheny County a $2 million grant to continue its efforts in collaboration to rethink the criminal justice system, safely reduce the county jail population, and eliminate racial inequities.

The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $246 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails, according to a news release from the county.

The Safety and Justice Challenge is supporting local leaders in Allegheny County and across the country determined to tackle one of the greatest drivers of over-incarceration in America —the misuse and overuse of jails. The county was first selected to join the collaborative Safety and Justice Challenge Network in 2017 with funding for a targeted project focused on building data dashboards to monitor key indicators in the criminal justice system. Since receiving the Safety and Justice Challenge grant in 2018, the population of the Allegheny County Jail is down 36 percent, according to the news release.

“We’re grateful to the MacArthur Foundation for its ongoing support of our efforts. Its continued funding of our collaborative efforts has allowed us to continue focusing on this important issue,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, in the release. “While the pandemic slowed our progress in some areas, it also showed clearly that our collaborative efforts can be quite impactful when it comes to the overall population of the jail. We look forward to doing even more to improve our criminal justice system.”

Allegheny County was one of 15 jurisdictions selected for additional funding based on the promise and progress of work to date. This new round of funding will provide Allegheny County with continued support and expert technical assistance to strengthen and expand strategies that address the main drivers, and resulting racial inequities, of local jail incarceration.

Building on Allegheny County’s progress to date is especially critical as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices against Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color reinforce the need to transform how the system operates. The response in Allegheny County to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a 77 percent reduction in jail bookings and the rapid review and release of people being held in the jail, demonstrated the ability to achieve a significantly smaller jail population without compromising public safety, the news release said. People released from the jail at the start of the pandemic had lower recidivism rates than those released during the same time period in the previous year, and court filings for new criminal offenses have consistently remained below pre-pandemic levels.

“We are proud of the progress we have made in the past two years to safely reduce the Allegheny County Jail population. Incarceration should be reserved for those who have committed the most serious offenses and pose a risk to the safety of the public,” said Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, President Judge of the Fifth Judicial District, in the release. “The continued support of the MacArthur Foundation will advance our goals of eliminating unnecessary incarceration and ensuring a more fair and efficient criminal justice system for all.”

In partnership with the Courts and the District Attorney’s Office, and including departments under the executive branch, Allegheny County has developed a comprehensive plan for additional strategies and initiatives over the next two years to invest in a safer, more effective, and more equitable system. Key strategies to achieve this goal include:

•Preventing unnecessary arrest and incarceration of people in crisis due to substance use, mental illness, or homelessness;

•Implementing a revalidated pretrial assessment and supervision plan to reduce bookings at first appearance;

•Implementing Court efficiencies to reduce length of stay in the jail;

•Completing a community-informed redesign of the physical structure of the jail to reflect a significantly smaller census and optimize the space for rehabilitation;

•Partnering with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics on a research project to identify drivers of racial and ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system and implement solutions;

•Engaging community members in the development of additional strategies.

Five years after its public launch, the Challenge Network has grown into a collaborative of 51 jurisdictions in 32 states modeling and inspiring reforms to create more fair, just and equitable local justice systems across the country.

“We must confront the devastating impacts of mass incarceration by a system that over-polices and over-incarcerates Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s Director of Criminal Justice, in the news release provided to the Courier. “Over the past five years, the Safety and Justice Challenge has safely reduced the ineffective and harmful use of jails, while learning that jail population reduction alone does not undo the racial inequities perpetuated by an unjust system and our nation’s history of systemic racism. We are committed to supporting cities and counties as they reimagine a definition of safety that is inclusive of all communities and makes meaningful progress towards our goal of ending racial and ethnic disparities in jails.”

Several of the nation’s leading criminal justice organizations will continue to provide technical assistance and counsel to Allegheny County and its partners, and the other jurisdictions involved in the Challenge: the Center for Court Innovation, Everyday Democracy, Nexus Community Partners, the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, Policy Research, Inc., the Vera Institute of Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Urban Institute, and Bennett Midland.

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