University of Pittsburgh
November 16, 2016

Pitt’s Institute of Politics Releases Task Force Report on Incarceration


Katie Fike


PITTSBURGH—The University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics today released a report titled “Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Improving Incarceration Policies and Practices in Allegheny County.” The report makes a series of recommendations designed to enhance both the fairness and the cost-effectiveness of the county’s criminal-justice system while maintaining a high-priority commitment to public safety.

This study was requested by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. It reflects a growing bipartisan concern that the dramatic escalation in incarceration rates over the past 25 years has been largely ineffective, very expensive, and frequently unfair. The report was the product of an effort undertaken by a 40-member task force that was cochaired by Mark Nordenberg, chair of the Institute of Politics and chancellor emeritus at Pitt, and Frederick W. Thieman, the Buhl Foundation’s Henry Buhl, Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership and former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The task force was composed of criminal-justice professionals, academics, elected officials, and other community leaders.

Nordenberg said, “This effort builds on the long tradition of Pitt’s Institute of Politics in convening respected regional leaders, often with different perspectives, to address key policy issues through civil discussion and fact-based analysis. It is important to note that the recommendations advanced by this task force do not require any action in Harrisburg or Washington. Instead, this is a self-help plan that positions us to improve our criminal-justice system—making it fairer and more cost-effective, without compromising public safety—by taking steps that are within our own control.”

Widespread recognition of the need for change in the criminal-justice system has been driven by the dramatic and unprecedented growth in national incarceration rates, which has created a distinctly American problem—levels of incarceration that are among the highest in the world, nearly eight times the rates found in the Western European nations that are generally viewed as peers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the number of individuals being held in local jails across the country nearly tripled between 1985 and 2014. Such steep increases have led to dramatically escalating costs without any evidence that higher levels of incarceration have played any significant role in enhancing public safety.

The trend lines are similar in Allegheny County. In the past 20 years, the population of the Allegheny County Jail has increased by 70 percent even as crime rates have fallen, and nearly 42 percent of the county’s general-fund budget is allocated to the criminal-justice system. One key contributor to this dramatic rise in the county jail population is the large number of people being detained prior to trial through the setting of monetary bonds, which often keep low-risk defendants behind bars. Data shows that 81 percent of people in the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of the offense for which they are being held, compared to 62 percent nationally, and over 80 percent of those housed in the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted, or even charged, with a violent offense.

Within the county’s incarcerated population, there are clear disparities. Though Blacks make up only 13 percent of the population of Allegheny County, they compose 49 percent of the Allegheny County Jail’s population. Allegheny County jails Black men at nearly twice the national incarceration rate for Black men, and that national rate is six times the national incarceration rate for White men.

“Having worked in and with the criminal-justice system, I understand the critical need not only to maintain public safety but to advance a system that is fair and equitable and that utilizes taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively,” said Thieman. “Allegheny County has built a national reputation as a center of excellence in criminal justice, which can be a source of regional pride and which places us at a comparatively good starting point. However, the dramatic increase in jail population over the last 20 years and the escalating costs associated with it confirm the need for continuing improvement efforts as recommended by the task force.”

In many respects, criminal-justice professionals in Allegheny County have been leaders in improving the system. That can be seen in the early adoption of risk-assessment tools, strong commitment to the creation and use of modern data systems, and the fact that the rate of growth in the incarcerated population has been slowed in recent years. Still, the task force concluded that further improvement not only is possible but is essential to the ongoing quest for ever-higher levels of public safety, human fairness, and system-wide cost-effectiveness.

“This region has always worked best when we pull together and work collaboratively and cooperatively to address the issues that face us, and reform of our criminal-justice system is no exception,” said Fitzgerald. “I am grateful for the work that has been done by this task force and the Institute of Politics and look forward to reviewing these recommendations to see which make sense for our county to implement. In Allegheny County, we’ve already made great strides forward and have the progressive work of the Criminal Justice Advisory Board to build upon when it comes to issues such as these.”

Peduto said, “The task force’s work is a demonstration of the Pittsburgh region’s collaborative mind-set in addressing pressing issues, like criminal-justice reform. This work is especially timely as we showcase the strengths of our region this week at the National League of Cities Summit. Regions that are able to advance meaningful criminal-justice reform are going to be seen as national models, both for their efforts to enhance public safety and community fairness and as effective stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

The task force set forth the following recommendations intended to preserve public safety while advancing the broader interests of the entire community:

  1. Given the strong and growing public interest in the fair and effective functioning of the criminal-justice system, the Allegheny County executive should appoint a panel to review progress in implementing these recommendations and advancing the guiding principles, providing a new measure of accountability and new source of information.
  2. The Allegheny County executive should create a criminal-justice-system coordinator position, which reports to the county manager and focuses on monitoring the criminal-justice system, to better manage the system and advance the goals of maintaining public safety, enhancing equity, and reducing costs.
  3. To improve the transparency and effectiveness of the criminal-justice system, Allegheny County should build on its considerable technology assets to deliver timely data and analysis to manage the overall system and monitor key performance metrics, including racial disparities.
  4. Because even a brief period of pretrial detention can have a devastating impact on the person jailed and the costs of incarceration are a significant burden for county taxpayers:
    1. Police, courts, and the district attorney should develop and use proven alternatives to arrest and booking, including establishing programs to divert individuals who otherwise might have been charged with nonviolent offenses into community-based treatment and support services, using summons in lieu of arrests, and establishing community-based restorative-justice programs.
    2. District judges should rarely use monetary bail and instead should use the county’s risk-assessment tool for pretrial release determinations, avoiding pretrial incarceration except when necessary to preserve public safety or ensure the defendant’s presence in subsequent proceedings.
    3. Jail personnel and the courts should reduce the processing time between a person’s admission to the jail and his or her first court appearance.
    4. The district attorney should guard against the practice of overcharging and also consider alternatives to prosecution that do not require filing formal charges, such as precharge diversion programs.
    5. Indigent defendants should be represented by a public defender at the preliminary arraignment, when initial incarceration decisions are made.
    6. Police and district judges should commit to the use of the jail in a uniform and consistent manner commensurate with the seriousness and frequency of crime in their particular communities.
  5. A high priority should be placed on expanding crisis-intervention training for police and other law-enforcement personnel and on diverting individuals who are suffering from mental illness or substance-use disorders into effective treatment programs.
  6. The Court of Common Pleas should take steps to enhance both fairness and cost-effectiveness by disposing of cases within time frames that are equal to or better than national standards; reducing the length of probation terms to be consistent with national standards; eliminating the use of consecutive probation terms; using graduated sanctions that are fair, swift, and certain for probation violations; and assessing court fines and fees on a sliding scale that reflects a person’s ability to pay.
  7. To the extent that cost savings are realized from a reduction in the Allegheny County Jail population, the county executive should give high priority to additional investments in the broader criminal-justice system that will improve its effectiveness. These include increasing the number of police on the beat—who, properly trained in a sentinel role, could be a major force in preventing crime and improving police-community relations; increasing the number of probation officers to better provide more effective supervision to higher-risk individuals on probation; expanding programs that have a proven record of reducing recidivism, including re-entry programs; and incentivizing district judges and municipal police departments to develop creative programs to reduce their use of the county jail even while maintaining public safety.

To download the report, visit