Criminal Justice

Creating a Path Forward to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System in Allegheny County

Following the killing of George Floyd, as well as the deaths of other Black citizens at the hands of police, the failures of our criminal justice system once again were brought to the fore and sparked nationwide protests. These most recent tragedies underscore the importance of the IOP’s initiative to examine the disparate impact and treatment of people of color by the criminal justice system. Although making up just 13% of the population of Allegheny County, Black people account for 66% of the jail population. Similarly, the criminal justice system is costly for Allegheny County taxpayers, accounting for 42% of the county’s general funds, including nearly $90 million annually for the jail.

For more than five years, the IOP — in partnership with Allegheny County and the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania and with generous foundation support, particularly from the Heinz Endowments — has worked to advance criminal justice reform in Allegheny County. The overarching goal of these ongoing initiatives is to find ways to improve Allegheny County’s criminal justice system so that it is “fairer and less costly, without compromising public safety.”

Over the course of several months and in partnership with experts and input from community members, the IOP developed a research approach to examine racial disparities in the Allegheny County criminal justice system that is grounded on the principles of evidence-based data, community engagement, diversity and cultural competence, and the development of actionable policy recommendations. Following an intensive review process conducted by a team of criminologists, legal experts, community members, and internal system stakeholders, the RAND Corporation was selected to conduct the quantitative analysis of disparate impact and treatment and RTI International was selected to conduct qualitative research that will include a thorough review of programs, policies, and services in the system.

The project design includes a holistic and mixed methods approach to understanding the policies, practices, and outcomes at key decision-making points within the system that may drive racial disparities. It begins with an assessment of policies, practices, and services within the Allegheny County criminal justice system to determine their potential impact on increasing racial disparities. Following this assessment, researchers will quantitatively analyze a broad data set focusing on decisions made during stops and arrests, charging, pretrial, sentencing, and probation and parole. Each area will be examined to better elucidate decision-making within them and to identify opportunities within each phase to alleviate disparities. In addition to a quantitative examination, the IOP embedded a robust qualitative aspect into the project to better understand the lived experiences of those who have been impacted by the system including formerly incarcerated individuals, family members, and victims along with the perspectives and norms of those people who work within it. Going even further, intersectional data will be collected to understand key factors contributing to involvement in the system such as education level, socioeconomic status, employment status, neighborhood of origin, gender, and age.

The project will take place throughout 2021 and culminate in the full release of data in May of 2022. Along that time, the IOP will address quarterly findings with our partners to make improvements throughout the system. Jurisdictions across the country have continued to struggle to make progress toward reducing racial disparities in county criminal justice systems and jails.

Jail Forum

In December 2019, the Institute sponsored “Repurposing Jails to Meet 21st Century Needs,” a conference devoted to promoting national best practices in jail use and programming. The conference featured national experts who examined the best practices of New York City and other jurisdictions in repurposing the use of jails, redesigning reentry programming, and addressing racial disparities. Videos and additional resources from the jail forum can be found here.

2019 Progress Panel Report

In September 2019, the Progress Panel released its latest report, “Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Imrpvoing Incareceation Policies and Practices in Allegheny County,” highlighting local criminal justice reform advances.The report outlines the impact of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative in Allegheny County. Through the Challenge, the county has committed to achieving a 20 percent reduction in its jail population by September 2020 and a reduction in racial and ethnic disparities throughout the system. Also described is the Heinz Endowment’s generous commitment to criminal justice reform through $10 million in grantmaking, including generous support of the work of the Institute in this area. Finally, the report examines a local initiative funded by the Buhl Foundation and launched in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhoods, which approaches criminal justice through a community lens by means of relationship-based policing, public safety partnerships, and the establishment of neighborhood safety centers.

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