Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Mass Incarceration, and Mass Supervision

Photo: David Maialetti, Philly.com

by SOPHIA CARLSON                                                                                                     Staff Writer


In the sixteen months since Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner took office, he has prioritized mass incarceration reform policy and made Philadelphia an example of effectual reform. For example, at the beginning of his tenure he overhauled the District Attorney’s office: Krasner fired a number of assistant district attorneys and one third of the homicide prosecutors, reduced charges and sentences for marijuana possession and sex work, and limited cash bail requirements, amongst other reform measures.

From the beginning, Krasner, also stressed the economic inefficiency of mass incarceration. By directing assistant distant attorneys to make statements at sentencing hearings to justify the given prison sentence, Krasner illuminated the extreme expense of sentences. His office estimated the cost of jailing an individual to be $42,000 every year, which he compared to the average salary of a teacher or police officer. [1]

Since last year, overall there have been 18 percent fewer cases filed than in 2017, including 25% fewer misdemeanor cases. This cutback reflects Krasner’s efforts to lessen the burden of extensive incarceration upon the vast network of lives that it reaches. Furthermore, the change promotes the idea that non-violent crime should not be punished in the same way that violent crime is.

However, there is pushback towards Krasner from those who believe that he is hurting office morale by inciting turnover. In a January 2019 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, journalist Chris Palmer described the positioning of Krasner’s critics, many of whom are former employees of the district attorney’s office, who believe that the turnovers have “damaged the office’s institutional knowledge and professionalism.”

The DA’s office rejects the claims that turnover has been an issue, and instead highlighted the “stampede of talent” that has been hired. [2] Krasner has been recruiting at a range of top law schools, including Harvard and Yale as well as every historically black law school. While speaking to a group of students at The University of Southern California, he described working for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office as the opportunity to work for “a truly progressive prosecutor’s office.”

Though the beginning of Krasner’s tenure has focused on policy targeting the issue of mass incarceration, on March 21st the DA office released a memo outlining policies intended to target mass supervision. Mass supervision, the extensive probationary monitoring of individuals, highlights the nature of supervision often found in parole and probation sentencing periods, which many believe to be a major driver of mass incarceration today.

A number of existing studies find that supervision, specifically on individuals who are not at risk for re-arrest, increases the chances that they will be arrested. According to The Marshall Project contributors Vincent Schiraldi and Michael P. Jacobson, this is because “heavy-handed supervision can jeopardize jobs,” and “reporting in at probation offices means contact with clients who have more serious criminal records.” The latter point appears to suggest that this contact can provide what would have been low-risk parolees with a connectual avenue towards more serious offenses that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. Finally, they suggest that “if you watch almost anyone more closely, you can find excuses to re-arrest them.” [3]

Schiraldi and Jacobson also highlighted that the Probation Department’s budget declined from $97 million in 2002 to $73 million in 2016. Despite this decrease, and while controlling for inflation, the Department’s cost per person on probation doubled. Instead of collapsing altogether, the Probation Department had to reduce caseload sizes, which effectively allowed for a trial of sorts in reducing mass supervision. They also increased contracts with relevant non-profit organizations that could support individuals on parole and probation, and opened local offices to “support and supervise people on probation throughout the city.”

They claim that positive results found despite the budgeting issues display the ineffectual nature of mass supervision, and that there are certainly other policy-based options available. [4]

In Krasner’s March 21 memo, he stated that “excessive supervision reduces public safety because it fails to prevent crime and arguably causes crime.” He cited a 2018 study by the Columbia University Justice Lab which found that supervision for more than three years can not only be ineffective, but harmful to the individuals it applies to.

The memo also established that Philadelphia’s judicial issues concerning mass supervision are worse compared to other cities. While New York City, with a population close to six times greater than that of Philadelphia’s, has around 12,700 individuals on parole, Philadelphia has almost 42,000. In an interview with NBC Philadelphia, Krasner explained that this statistic means that in Philadelphia, nearly 1 out of every 22 adults are on supervision. [5]

In their piece for The Marshall Project, Schiraldi and Jacobson cited an article by the Pew Charitable Trust Fund, which described how thirty-six states have joined the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which enabled participants to enact laws which implemented research-based changes to sentencing, release, oversight, and supervision policies. Pew reported that the goals of these reforms were “to protect public safety, rein in taxpayers costs, prioritize prison space for violent offenders, and invest prison savings in strategies that reduce crime and recidivism.”

Though this appears to be a concrete step forward in minimizing mass supervision, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative can serve as an example for why the effective implementation of judicial reform surrounding mass incarceration and supervision can be so difficult to actually achieve.

For example, Pennsylvania is listed as a state complying with “graduate responses for violations,” where they are seeking to replace revocation to prison as a punishment for parole and probation violations. But what are these “graduate responses,” or even the violations to begin with? The Justice Reinvestment Initiative claimed that technical violations, such as positive drug tests or missed treatment sessions, should be met with sanctions such as earlier curfews, community service, and enhanced supervision or home detention. [6]

Are these changes truly a change from the system which is already in place? Much of the critique surrounding mass supervision is not necessarily with the kinds of violations responses in place, but the length in which they are imposed. The responses become harder to comply with as time goes on and formerly incarcerated individuals move towards recidivism.

Time will tell if Larry Krasner’s policy reform regarding mass incarceration and mass supervision has real-world positive benefits. If his reform efforts are found to be wholly effectual, then other cities and district attorney’s offices will be well-placed to replicate the system currently at work in Philadelphia.


Sources

[1] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “In latest edict, Philly DA Larry Krasner tells prosecutors to seek lighter sentences, estimate costs of incarceration”

[2] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Larry Krasner’s first year as Philly DA, Staff turnover, fewer cases, plenty of controversy”

[3] The Marshall Project, “When Less is More”

[4] The Marshall Project, “When Less is More”

[5] NBC Philadelphia, “‘End Mass Supervision’: Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Moves to Reduce Reliance on Probation, Parole”

[6] PEW, “For Better Results, Cut Correctional Populations”

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