PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia’s decision to decriminalize low-level offenses recently earned praise from The Vera Institute in their report on the dramatic increase of the number of women incarcerated. The Vera Institute is supported by the MacArthur Foundation, which granted Philadelphia $3.5 million to reduce its incarcerated population by a third over the next three years.
The report notes that “when jurisdictions establish policies and programs that allow for alternatives to traditional prosecution, women caught up in the justice system stand to benefit…In October 2014, the City of Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. During its first year in effect, the new law resulted in police officers issuing 1,012 civil citations, compared to 3,686 arrests made during the previous year for the same infractions. Following this reform, the city recently passed legislation that converted criminal summonses for certain low-level offenses, such as disorderly conduct and failure to disperse, into civil citations and fines.”
While the recent expansion of code violation notices (CVNs) has been widely praised as a tactic for avoiding mass arrests during the Democratic National Convention, the Vera Report highlights that this legislation has a wide-ranging and long-term impact, particularly for women in the criminal justice system. Of the approximately 600 women currently in Philadelphia’s custody, most are charged for nonviolent crimes. A sampling of charges shows the female inmates at Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF) have 335 drug related charges, 159 retail theft charges and 157 prostitution charges versus relatively low violent charges, 7 murder, 27 firearm and 5 arson charges.
In addition to CVNs, Philadelphia also sponsors several rehabilitative programs unique to female inmates. For example, Gearing UP is a spin class offered at RCF twice a week for women who have been abused. The program’s goal is to build self-esteem and prevent women from reentering abusive relationships. After their release, the women who participate in Gearing UP are given a bike to encourage them to continue riding with the group and attending associated mental and physical health programs.
Recently, female inmates also began participating in a New Leash on Life, a program in which inmates helps train rescued dogs and in return receive education, therapy, job placement and housing support after they’re released. Male inmates who participated in this program had a recidivism rate of 16 percent, compared to the City’s overall rate of 55 percent. The second female class is graduating on Thursday, August 25.
The Mayor spoke about the commitment of the City and its criminal justice partners to reducing its prison population at Vera Institute event in Philadelphia last month. A video of his remarks are available HERE.