The Allegheny County Jail Collaboratives' Advisory Panel met Friday morning at the County Courthouse. This was its third meeting since forming in 2010. Initiated by Fred Thieman of the Buhl Foundation, the collaborative brings together the public sector, foundations, the non-profit community, educational facilities and religious organizations to find ways to reduce the numbers of people coming into contact with the criminal justice system — and once they have come into contact, prevent them from recidivating.
Nationally, 750 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated — that's two million people in the U.S. The incarceration rate has been increasing in this country and in some states in particular, Pennsylvania among them.
The Commonwealth mirrors the country. Last year there was an increase of 2,100 prison beds in the state. From 1998-2008, Allegheny County's population declined by 4.6 percent, but the number of inmates in the jail increased by 59 percent. Now there are more than 2,500 people in the county jail.
The panelists — which included Esther Bush, President of the Urban League of Pittsburgh; Bob Colville, Judge at the Superior Court of Pennsylvania who was involved in the early stages of Mental Health Court; and Susan Everingham, Director of the Pittsburgh RAND Office — spoke about some of the problems within the justice system, including the high numbers of people who are incarcerated for drug and alcohol related crimes, which carry mandatory sentences.
They hope that these sorts of collaborations can curb the numbers of people incarcerated.
"Pennsylvania isn't always the first state people think of when they think of the 'lock 'em up' states, but it is one of the states that is following that national trend. We are putting a lot of people in prison here in the state of Pennsylvania," said Everingham, who has been involved with criminal justice research for many years.
Colville said mandatory sentencing leaves less discretion in the hands of judges to offer alternatives, although there are alternatives, such as the specialty courts, and recidivism programs.
He says they haven't been able to decrease the number of people who get involved in drug and alcohol, but they're able to decrease arrests. He says there are factors outside of the criminal justice system that are to blame.
"There's a whole other cultural thing out there in American society, which leads to inequities within the society. Some are by race, some are by gender, and we don't spend a heck of a lot of time — the criminal justice system where I work doesn't spend any time in trying to make that or equalize that," he said.
Funding for the jail collaborative comes from foundations and federal and state grants.