Institute of Politics

Criminal Justice Progress Panel releases fall 2019 update report

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The Criminal Justice Progress Panel, appointed by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and operating through the Institute of Politics of the University of Pittsburgh, today released a Fall 2019 Report entitled “Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Improving Incarceration Policies and Practices in Allegheny County.” 

The release of this report comes four years after this reform effort was launched in the fall of 2015. At that time, Fitzgerald directed a forty-person Criminal Justice Task Force to recommend ways in which the county’s criminal justice system might be changed “to make it fairer and less costly, without compromising public safety.”  The report describes advances already made as well as future goals.  It also underscores that the county now is moving forward with the benefit of a changed environment that includes a significant infusion of foundation funding that is intended to support reform efforts and increase the speed with which they can be implemented.

In commenting on the release of the report, Fitzgerald said: “When we decided to make reform of the criminal justice system a priority, we knew that change would not come easily or quickly, but we have remained committed to this effort because we know it is the right thing to do.  Both the work of the larger Task Force that was appointed in 2015 and the ongoing efforts of the Progress Panel have provided a framework for improvement.  We remain deeply grateful to the national and local foundations that have adopted this cause and made substantial investments that will help us pursue these important goals.”

Most noteworthy among recent funding commitments is a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation $2 million grant that was awarded in October of 2018

as a part of its Safety and Justice Challenge. The national initiative has a goal to “reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.”  Through its participation in that challenge, the county has committed to achieving two main goals: (1) reducing the population of the Allegheny County Jail by 20 percent by September 2020; and (2) reducing racial and ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system.

MacArthur Foundation funds have supported the hiring of new employees in the Office of the Public Defender, the Courts, and the Office of the District Attorney.  The assignments given to these new employees are intended to advance specific system-improvement goals.  Key examples include:

  • Efforts to expand the legal representation of indigent defendants at their preliminary arraignments by the Office of the Public Defender will be supported through the hiring of three new public defenders;
  • Efforts to expand the use of pretrial risk assessment tools to the sixteen magisterial district judges whose offices are outside the City of Pittsburgh and who do not currently use a risk assessment tool will be supported through the hiring of two new pretrial staff members;
  • Efforts to further expedite court processing will be supported by the hiring of two senior assistant district attorneys to increase productivity in case screening; and
  • Efforts to simultaneously resolve new charges and probation violations by scheduling both hearings on a single day will be supported by the hiring of a new probation manager.

Future efforts also will include work with technical assistance providers to develop a strategy to reduce racial and ethnic disparities within its criminal justice system and will engage both experts and community stakeholders to consider repurposing some portions of the Allegheny County Jail.

The investments being made in criminal justice reform by two local foundations also were highlighted in the Progress Panel Report.  The Heinz Endowments have made an extraordinary $10 million commitment to criminal justice reform.  That more general multi-year commitment includes a $350,000 grant to the Institute of Politics to support work designed to advance the two principal goals of the MacArthur grant: reducing jail population and reducing racial disparities.  Among the efforts to be undertaken by the Institute are sponsoring a major conference on jail repurposing later this year. 

The Progress Panel Report also describes the Buhl Foundation’s committed support of the resident-led One Northside initiative, which has created a high-potential, community-policing partnership involving the City of Pittsburgh Police, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, and the Northside community. That partnership is grounded in a series of strategies designed to foster trust and improve relationships between community residents and City police officers.

Both the Progress Panel and the larger Criminal Justice Task Force that was appointed in 2015 have been co-chaired by Mark Nordenberg, Chancellor Emeritus of the University, Chair of its Institute of Politics and a Distinguished Service Professor of Law; and Frederick Thieman, who holds the Henry Buhl, Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership at the Buhl Foundation and is both a former President of the Buhl Foundation and a former United States Attorney.  Other members of the progress panel are:  Alfred Blumstein, the J. Erik Jonsson University Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University; Kenya Boswell, the President of the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania; Quintin Bullock, the President of the Community College of Allegheny County; Susan Everingham, the Director of Innovation Architecture of the RAND Corporation; Jeffrey Finkelstein, the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Great Pittsburgh; Glenn Grayson, the Pastor of the Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church; and Matt Smith, the President of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

In commenting on the four-year process that led to the release of this most recent report, Chancellor Emeritus Nordenberg said, “We were very careful in structuring this process, and it appears to be working just as we hoped it would.  Almost all of the goals currently being pursued can be linked to recommendations that were made in the original Task Force Report.  In that sense, we are indebted not only to the members of the Progress Panel but also to the forty Task Force members who invested a year in this work and gave it such a promising start.  We also could never have come this far without the consistent support that we have received from County Executive Fitzgerald and the members of his leadership team.”