Reinvest Prison Savings in Criminal Justice System, Council Urged

Amaris Elliott-Engel
The Legal Intelligencer
April 27, 2011
Philadelphia's criminal justice leaders are seeking increased funding after three difficult budget years, and they got some sympathy from City Council members during budget hearings Tuesday.
City Councilman Bill Green said that the $6 million the city has saved because of decreasing numbers of city inmates could be invested in electronic monitoring bracelets, increasing the number of probation-parole officers, and other more efficacious ways of carrying out criminal justice.
Just as criminal justice leaders have reaped dividends in reducing the number of city prisoners by 2,000 and making other reforms, any additional outlays in taxpayer dollars should focus on a return in investment that would be both better policy and save money, Green said.
"Can we agree if we can actually identify $6 million in savings in other places in the current year or next year … the [Mayor Michael A. Nutter] administration will agree to provide the additional probation officers and the electric monitors?" Green asked.
Rebecca Rhynhart, Nutter's budget director, said that some of the savings from the fall-off in the prison population are being reinvested in the city's criminal justice system to make further improvements. And the administration would consider doing more, Rhynhart said, but "we don't have an indefinite amount of money."
Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said separately that the 2011-12 fiscal year is still far away from the 2008 revenues pre-recession. The city is estimated to have $3.47 billion in revenues in the next fiscal year, and public safety is estimated to cost the city $1.15 billion.
More savings from the prison system won't be realized unless the population drops so low that the city could close one of its correctional facilities, he said.
Court leaders have said the proposed budget would not involve major cuts beyond their current level of funding and would address some shortfalls, but they are still worried about a long-standing and significant shortage of probation officers, which they say could imperil the system's efforts to develop a supervision model that requires more oversight of probationers and parolees predicted to be at a higher risk of recidivism and less oversight of probationers and parolees predicted to be at a lower risk of recidivism.
City Councilmen William K. Greenlee and W. Wilson Goode Jr. expressed concerns Tuesday over the number of probation-parole officers and their salaries.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said she would prioritize filling 56 adult probation officer positions, 21 juvenile probation officer positions and 25 warrant officer positions over any other funding increases.
"We are very, very thin right now and it's reaching a dangerous point. … We believe it, the city believes that and the union certainly representing those folks believes that," Dembe said.
The FJD is seeking $10 million more than Nutter has proposed in the pending budget. The courts would receive $106.9 million in general funds under the mayor's plan. The District Attorney's Office made a generic request to receive more general funds, while Nutter has proposed the prosecutor's office receive $31.05 million. The Defender Association is seeking $2.85 million more in general funds over the mayor's proposal that the office receive $35.03 million.
The FJD is asking for $5.6 million, among other requests, to cover $2 million in increases in fees paid for private lawyers and that have not been increased significantly since 1996; $2 million to fill frozen probation, parole and warrant officer positions and to increase probation officer salaries; $600,000 to expand a diversion program for misdemeanors into a citywide community court program; and almost $550,000 to restore reductions in funding for the criminal clerk of courts operation after it was merged into the FJD last spring, among other requests.
The FJD also is asking for $4.5 million to increase the number of electronic monitoring units, which could be used to place inmates in their homes instead of in the Philadelphia Prisons System. Court leaders estimate that purchasing 800 units could result in $24.2 million in savings because of a reduction in the number of days that offenders are incarcerated.
The Defender Association requested $2.85 million more to be able to fund 22 attorney positions, a 5 percent increase for operating expenses, a salary increase of 3 percent for staff and funding for anticipated medical insurance increases. Chief Defender Ellen Greenlee said that the alignment in November of the city's courtrooms with the city's detective divisions created the need for 11 more attorneys in order to cover zoned courts. The office already was short attorneys because of increased workload from diversionary and other rehabilitative court programs, Greenlee said. The office has funding for 228 attorneys, but funded 11 more attorneys by diverting funds meant for social workers and meant for administrative staff, Greenlee said. "To be fully staffed to cover all court assignments we need to be fully funded for 250 attorneys, not 228 attorneys," Greenlee said.
The District Attorney's Office did not seek a specific amount of money above and beyond its proposed budget. But District Attorney Seth Williams said his office needs more funding to pay for a new case management system to exchange discovery electronically; to divert thousands more offenders into community courts; to institutionalize a program for non-violent drug offenders with the aim of nipping the cycle of recidivism in the bud; to have a family justice center facility to help domestic violence victims across the city; and to increase prosecutor salaries in order to keep the office competitive in the legal market.
Nutter has proposed a budget that increases funding for the district attorney and the courts. The proposed court budget plans to cover $2.4 million that would pay for 52 probation-parole officer positions funded with federal grant money ending at the end of the fiscal year, $800,000 more in counsel fees and $200,000 more in juror fees. The proposed budget for the district attorney would increase funding by $1.9 million.
Criminal justice leaders said they understood the city's budget limits, but they still pushed for City Council to tinker with the mayor's proposed budget.
Williams said, based upon his office's calculation, that Philadelphia has the second lowest funded district attorney's office in the country when the amount of general fund money appropriated is measured against the incidence of violent crime in the country's 20 largest counties.
The FJD's leaders said the theme of their budget presentation was "reinvestment in the courts," and Williams also argued for reinvestment in the criminal justice system. Court leaders even put together a PowerPoint presentation to highlight programs like the mortgage foreclosure diversion program, a diversionary program through the use of video and the court's development of a civil case app for iPhones and iPads –– set to Josh Groban's soaring rendition of "You Raise Me Up."
Whether the sympathetic comments will result in more dollars remains to be seen. City Council must pass a budget by May 31 to be on time. •

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