Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz’s recent report claiming the city can save $75 million annually by eliminating cash bail for low-level offenders contains key errors, according to a member of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration.
The controller’s Oct. 11 report predicted a dramatic reduction in expenditures and a significantly reduced prison population in both the city’s House of Corrections and Detention Center spurred by cutting loose nonviolent defendants awaiting trial.
However, Butkovitz overstated the impact of eliminating cash bail, according to Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff to Deputy Manager of Criminal Justice Benjamin Lerner, who along with the courts, the District Attorney’s Office, public defenders and other city departments have been awarded a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to pursue bail reform.
Specifically, she said Butkovitz misstated the number of prisoners held on low bail, the population capacities for the prisons and the city’s ability to close both the House of Corrections and the Detention Center at the same time.
Butkovitz claimed the city could close the facilities if the inmate population dropped from roughly 6,500 to 4,700. He added that 33 percent of the jail population is held because they can’t afford bail, and a third of that number could be released on less than $5,000.
Wertheimer said that real number is “nowhere near what the controller asserts in his report.” She argued that the incarcerated pretrial population is closer to 30 percent, and only 8 percent of the entire jail population are held on low bail.
She added that for the city to consider closing even one facility, the population would have to drop to 4,800. And to do that, several factors would have to be in alignment, including the male to female ratio, the number of sentenced versus non-sentenced inmates, and individual custody needs of those locked up.
“These aren’t soup cans you can stock in any order,” Wertheimer said, “these are people with unique needs.”
City controller’s office spokesman Brian Dries defended Butkovitz’s report.
“The city controller’s report was backed by research and figures provided through public documents. The research is sourced in the report,” he said in a brief email.
In response, Wertheimer maintained that the public reports Butkovitz pointed to were either out-of-date, or the data was misrepresented and the controller’s office didn’t bother to verify the information with the city.
The sources Butkovitz cited in his report include news reports, articles from scholarly journals and institutional research studies. At least one entry dated back to 1997 while others were published as recently as this year.
City Councilman Curtis Jones, an outspoken proponent for bail reform who received a nod from Butkovitz in his report, said no one side’s facts are completely accurate.
“Somewhere in between the controller’s report and the Kenney administration’s estimation is the truth,” Jones said.
In his report, Butkovitz noted that the city spends approximately $100 to $500 per day to house an inmate. Jones said in the case of someone who has low enough bail, it makes sense to let them out given continued incarceration costs.
“If we’re spending $110 a day on someone who has a $100 bail, tell me how that makes sense if they’re not a danger to society,” he said.
Jones added, however, that Butkovitz’s $75 million savings figure isn’t so clear cut, noting that the city would have to reinvest that money into measures like tracking bracelets, diversion programs, skills classes and mental health initiatives for defendants.
“I think the controller’s report is always on track. But the devil is on the details,” Jones said.
Many of the alternatives to cash bail are already being pursued by the city, Wertheimer said.
“We have a number of initiatives in increasing efficiency in booking, pretrial diversion programs, and a bill that Councilman Jones introduced over a year ago decriminalizing nuisance behaviors,” Wertheimer said.
An additional measure being developed is a “pretrial risk tool,” software that analyzes the likelihood that a defendant will flee or recidivate when released.
The decision to end the cash bail system is not the city’s alone to make, and that action from Harrisburg—which will likely take time—is necessary. Wertheimer said Philadelphia’s representatives in the state legislature are interested in criminal justice reform, but no official conversations with the administration or its criminal justice partners have taken place.
Bail has been the status quo in Philadelphia for decades. The push to end the cash bail system has gained traction in other major cities including New York and Washington, D.C. The state of New Jersey has all but eliminated cash bail, putting it at the head of the pack in the nationwide criminal justice reform effort.
“That being said, this is not a switch that you can flip on and off,” Wertheimer said. “In New Jersey it’s taken a long time to put things in place.”
P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PJDannunzioTLI.