Repurposing Jails to Meet 21st Century Community Needs

On December 5, 2019, the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics held a special program entitled “Repurposing Jails to Meet 21st Century Community Needs.” The all-day forum featured respected national leaders whose thoughts stimulated and informed local discussions regarding the best use of the Allegheny County jail to preserve public safety while enhancing fairness, improving outcomes and reducing costs. Additional information on forum speakers, including presentation slides and background reports, can be found here

By reviewing the ways in which space currently is utilized in our county jail, Allegheny County would join a growing number of jurisdictions committed to goals for their jails that include, but go beyond, secure incarceration. During the forum, national experts addressed such critical topics as the purpose and demographics of jails, practices for combating both high levels of recidivism and racial disparities, and modern trends in jail use.

The most ambitious redesign project now underway is the recently approved closure of the infamous Riker’s Island facility and the construction of four new jail facilities in New York City’s boroughs. Though nothing that ambitious is required, or would be possible here, learning more about the ongoing New York City experience provided a thought-provoking discussion on possibilities for the Allegheny County jail and criminal justice system. 

The following distinguished speakers presented at the forum:

  • Elizabeth Glazer is the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City and previously served as Secretary for Public Safety for the state of New York. She provided insights into New York City’s decision to close the Rikers Island Jail and open new community-based jails in the city’s boroughs. Additionally, she also discussed the goals of the initiative and lessons that might apply to other jurisdictions seeking to better utilize their jail facilities.
  • Michael Jacobson is the Founder and Director of the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governments, and the former President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice. He also is the author of the path-breaking 2005 book Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration. He presented on the ways in which other jurisdictions are implementing new approaches to facilities use and results-oriented programming.
  • Jonathan Lippman is the former Chief Judge of New York’s Court of Appeals, the highest court in that state. He also served as Chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform and is currently with Latham and Watkins, LLP. He discussed both the policies that caused the number of people incarcerated to rise so dramatically and the costs these policies have placed on our society, both economically and socially. He also discussed best practices in reducing incarceration levels.
  • Stanley Richards is the Executive Vice President of The Fortune Society, a $35 million non-profit committed to supporting successful reentry from jail or prison and promoting alternatives to incarceration. Mr. Richards is a formerly incarcerated and has over 30 years of experience in the criminal justice field. He has been honored as a “Champion of Change” for his commitment to helping formerly incarcerated individuals reenter successfully into society and addressed best practices for reintegrating people into their communities once they leave jails.
  • Danyelle Solomon is the Vice President for Race and Ethnicity Policy of the Center for American Progress and previously served as policy counsel for the Washington, D.C. office of the Brennan Center for Justice. She also is co-author of “Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails: Recommendations for Local Practice,” which was published by the Brennan Center in 2015. She discussed the forces that have produced racial and ethnic disparities in the American criminal justice system, as well as steps that can be taken to reduce them. She also provided examples of jurisdictions that have successfully implemented disparity-reduction strategies.

To learn more about the forum speakers please click here.