Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 47 (October 1982)


Philadelphia has a long history of interest in penal reform and Penology. This tradition originated with the interest in humane treatment of prisoners which is part of the belief of the Society of Friends or Quakers as they are generally known. Fortunately for local Penologists and others interested in the field there is an extensive collection of records of the Philadelphia County Prison system extant in the Philadelphia City Archives extending from 1790 to 1948 including Board of Inspectors' Minutes and administrative and financial records as well as records of the prisoners themselves. Several studies have been made from these records. Presently Batsheva Epstein, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, has made extensive use of the records for her dissertation.

We have paraphrased below a short report based on a preliminary stage of her study in order to illustrate some of the uses to which the information contained in Prison records can be put.

The prison population selected from consists of sentenced prisoners only as distinguished from untried prisoners, as the prison also housed untried prisoners who could not raise bail. The selected sentenced prisoners include a systematic pilot sample of all persons discharged after having served their sentences between the years 1795-1835. The incarcerated individuals were sentenced in all courts holding sessions in Philadelphia City and County except federal courts. These included the Mayor's Court (City), Courts of Quarter Sessions and Oyer and Terminer (County) and Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (Sessions held in Philadelphia). The sample years are 1795-1797, 1814-1817 and 1834-1835.

Three categories of data were extracted from the large number of categories: offender characteristics which included offender's name, place of origin, residence, intent to stay in Philadelphia, height, sex, age, occupation, race and previous incarcerations; offense characteristics, comprised of offense, dollar value of theft, number of co-offenders and court in which tried; and components of punishment consisting of sentence date, date of discharge, death penalty, amount of fine, security, costs, reason for discharge, time spent incarcerated and amount of disparity between sentence and time actually spent incarcerated. Additional sentence items are included too. Ms. Epstein's summation of the data indicates that the largest category of offense type sentenced to incarceration from the Mayor's Court were various degrees of Larceny (76%) and the second largest category was Assault and Battery (18%). The remainder (6%) consisted of Burglary, Horse Stealing, Riot, Operating a Tippling Muse or Disorderly House and Fornication and Bastardy, each under 1% (n=166). The Court of Quarter Sessions which had corresponding jurisdiction in Philadelphia County outside the City to the Mayor's Court within the City limits follows a similar distribution (n=193). The Court of Oyer and Terminer had jurisdiction over more serious offenses and consequently there is a greater proportion of incarcerations for offenses such as Robberies (an element of which is force or the threat of force) 32%, Burglaries 24%, and Murder 7%, in addition to small percentages of such crimes as Involuntary Manslaughter, Rape, Arson and Counterfeiting (n=41). Ms. Epstein makes the observation that the high proportion of larceny to total offenses sentenced to jail is similar to contemporary figures. However, the nature of the Larceny offender was different. The offender then was often a non-stranger such as a servant, an employee or a neighbor who entered the premises legally. Larceny today is more often a street crime committed by strangers.

The mean sentence time in Mayor's Court was 10½ months of imprisonment and in the Quarter Session Court 11½ months while in Oyer and Terminer it was slightly over five years, again illustrating the more serious nature of the offenses heard in that Court. In addition to incarceration the prisoner usually had to bear the costs of trial. Fines accompanied prison sentences 2/3 of the time, while restitution was ordered about one-fourth of the time.

The heart of the report is the comparison of the sentence and the amount of time actually served in prison. Ms. Epstein breaks this comparison into type of offense, race, sex and occupation. The latter is generally one indication of socioeconomic status. She found that 78% of Assault and Battery offenders and 69% of Burglary offenders served full sentences. The percentages for Larceny approaches 74%. She concludes that the tendency is for the 0 disparity category to be the largest one in all of the offenses, meaning no disparity between sentence and time actually served. We should keep in mind that sentences were definite rather than our present practice of indeterminate type sentences. It is worth noting that from 1/4-1/3 of the sampled incarcerations in 1795 and 1796 were pardoned upon the condition that the offender leave the state. Most sentences were consecutive meaning that if an offender was convicted of more than one offense, he was supposed to serve the total time imposed for all of the offenses. The present practice is that frequently the sentences are concurrent which results in the offender serving the sentence of the most serious of the offenses. The actual time incarcerated for the sample indicates that while the theory was consecutive sentences, in practice they were served concurrently.

Ms. Epstein concludes her preliminary study by comparing the relationship between sentence imposed and sentence actually served for the variables of race, sex and occupation. The racial distinction made in the records is among whites, blacks and mulattoes. Somewhat over half the whites and somewhat less than half the mulattoes served their full sentences, while about 75¡/t of blacks served full sentences. Relative to their proportions in the sample, blacks served their full sentences about twice as frequently as whites. In addition about 15¡/c of the blacks and 35¡/t of the mulattoes served more than their sentences probably because of inability to pay the fines which were customarily a part of the sentence in addition to incarceration. Fines for a white offender were on the average about 4 times as large as fines for a black or mulatto offender, considering the dollar value of the goods stolen. While whites were convicted of larcenies with an average theft value about 1½ times greater than that of blacks, they were sentenced to more than 3½ times their average amount in fines.

The study indicates that there was no statistically significant difference in the treatment of the sexes in regards to the relationship between sentence imposed and served.

Artisans and skilled laborers received on the average the longest sentences-two years, sailors and seamen are next with one year and 11 months and apprentices not far behind them, with a year and a half. The difference between time sentenced and time served (for cases in which such difference existed) was greatest for farmers. Unskilled laborers served a greater proportion of their full sentences than artisans and skilled laborers in that order. This pattern may be an indicator o of the order of importance of the occupations. This part of Ms. Epstein's report which considers mainly averages was based on a pilot sample and concerns only a small section of her dissertation, but it does demonstrate that information in the Prison records is useful not only for those interested in the Criminal Justice system, but also relating to Women's History, Race relationships and a variety of socio-economic areas of study.

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