Prison Brake: Philly Considers Rehab for Some Offenders

The city considers rehabilitation, not jail, for some offenders.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted May. 25, 2010

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One of the things we took away from last week’s panel on the state of Philly’s prisons is that other cities in the U.S. have successfully lowered their prison populations using tactics other than a get-out-of-jail-free card.

If you haven’t read some of the findings in the recently released “Philadelphia’s Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions,” a study by Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, know this:

Seven percent of all our tax dollars go toward the prison system.

The prison departmental system’s budget has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The budget now stands at $240 million.

The report’s authors cite New York City and Washington, D.C. as examples of places doing things we’re not, in order to stay safe and keep fewer people behind bars. Philadelphia ranks fourth in the United States in per-capita prisoners, with 5.72 per 1,000, and from 1998 to 2008, our jail population more than doubled, a feat only surpassed by Pittsburgh.

But all this comparing of our criminal-infested city to others must’ve got District Attorney Seth Williams thinking. It looks like Williams, who ran on a “get smart on crime” platform, has found his answer: imitating a San Francisco program that fights crime with rehabilitation.

At a May 19 public meeting concerning the study, Williams mentioned that he wanted to “replicate” a program currently being used to reduce crime in California. It’s called Back on Track and was developed by San Francisco’s ambitious District Attorney Kamala Harris in 2005.

Back on Track selects first-time, nonviolent drug offenders and places them in a rehabilitative program comprised of education, parenting classes, job training and other “employment readiness activities,” to stop crime before it becomes a habit. San Francisco’s program started with 49 offenders; it now has 100. Philly hopes to “target 150 offenders per year,” according to Pew Cultural Initiatives and Deputy Director Greg Rowe, whose office is working alongside the D.A.’s Office to find funding and enact the program.

Of the 8,306 average number of prison inmates currently in Philadelphia’s jail system, Pew’s report finds that 25 percent, or about 2,096 offenders, are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Of these, first-time offenders will be selected using criteria from the D.A.’s Office and given a chance to participate in the rehabilitation program.

The chosen ones agree to plead guilty, but see no jail time. Further, their rap sheets are expunged upon successful completion of the year-long program. This helps people, well, get back on track. It’s easier to find a job with a clean record.

If the participants screw up (they only get one chance), they’re kicked out of the program and go directly to sentencing.

There may be, then, a method to Williams’ madness. While the recidivism rate in San Francisco hovers around 50 percent, the re-offense rate for those going through Back on Track is less than 10 percent. Philly’s recidivism rate is in the 70s and, as mentioned by several members of the four-member panel last week, jail often turns nonviolent offenders violent, rendering the prison system, for many inmates, useless if not destructive.

“[Felons] are monitored and get job training,” says Rowe. “If they need drug counseling, they get that. They have a counselor they can regularly go to and other appropriate social services.” Rowe says the program will be funded by a private-public partnership, the participants of which have yet to be named.

But the program isn’t without its faults.

In July 2008, Amanda Kiefer was run down by an SUV driven by Alexander Izaguirre. Izaguirre, an illegal immigrant, had been participating in San Francisco’s Back on Track at the time of the accident. While the program is meant to save the city and state money (its website claims Californians get $5 back for every dollar put into the system, opposed to the tax dollars they lose in the prison system), it appeared, as of 2009, at least seven illegal immigrants had been found participating in the program, according to a June 2009 story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The program has also been accused of being “soft on crime,” and recidivist cases like Izaguirre’s are only fanning that flame. However, in spite of its faults, this may be a trend worth jumping on for Williams. His city-wide, hated-by-Abraham marijuana policy was a good start toward, ahem, weeding out the criminal-justice system, and Philly’s Back on Track may be the answer for so many convicted youngsters who’ve been fastballed through the school system only to end up on the streets with second-grade reading skills.

Felony convictions, no matter how long the incarceration, are, in the words of Williams, “an economic death sentence.” Those coming out of jail often have nowhere to turn other than to a life of crime—unless they want to bag groceries the rest of their lives. For a couple hundred drug offenders each year, this rehabilitation program could potentially change all that.

And if it saves the taxpayers some cash, why not?

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1. Brenda said... on May 25, 2010 at 04:00PM

“Will you also look into a program for those men and women that get out of jail and can't get any help , no ,jobs no welfare, no housing money ,or food money .what are they to do? help please”

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2. Anonymous said... on May 28, 2010 at 05:25AM

“most people have no idea how difficult it is to re-enter society after serving a jail sentence. for non-violent offenders, a program like this would be wonderful. kudos to williams for looking for a progressive response to crime in our city.”

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