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Report shows rise in inmates, more black inmates in Allegheny County Jail

By Alexa Bakalarski / Assistant News Editor

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Rates of incarceration in Allegheny County Jail are rising, partially because large numbers of people are being jailed before conviction, a trend that has caused the region to outpace national averages and that highlights the inequities in the local criminal justice system.

Although the Allegheny County Jail houses 70 percent more inmates now than it did 20 years ago, 81 percent of those in jail have not been convicted of the offense they had been arrested for, according to a new Pitt report.

Instead, the more than 80 percent of inmates who haven’t been convicted are awaiting trial and/or haven’t met bail —  a problem that’s expensive and possibly unethical, according to researchers from Pitt’s Institute of Politics.

This data was included in a report the Institute released Wednesday that was conducted in the fall of 2015.

The study can be found online at Pitt’s Institute of Politics website. Here are some recommendations from the report:

  • Develop alternatives to arrest and booking, such as forming programs to send individuals who could be charged with nonviolent offenses to support services and community-based treatment
  • Encourage district judges to use the county’s risk-assessment tool to determine pretrial release instead of monetary bail
  • Reduce the process time between when a person is admitted to jail and their first court appearance
  • Expand crisis intervention training for police and other law enforcement
  • Create a criminal justice coordinator position to report, monitor and manage the criminal justice system
  • Create a panel to monitor the recommendations outlined in the report

While many of the statistics presented in the report align with the demographics of prisons nationally, there are some cases where Allegheny County’s are more skewed. Nationally, African-American men are jailed at six times the rate that white men are jailed. But the report found that Allegheny County jails African-American men at almost twice the national rate.

Additionally, while African-Americans make up 13 percent of Allegheny County’s total population, they make up 49 percent of the Allegheny County Jail population.

The report was conducted by a 40-member task force made up of community leaders, including Mark Nordenberg, former Pitt chancellor and current chair of Pitt’s Institute of Politics, professionals in the criminal justice field and elected officials in the county.

Frederick W. Thieman, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the Buhl Foundation’s Henry Buhl Jr. chair for civic leadership, also co-chaired the task force.

“The task force’s work is a demonstration of the Pittsburgh region’s collaborative mindset in addressing pressing issues, like criminal-justice reform,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in a press release.

According to the report, 75 percent of inmates in Allegheny County Jail have histories of drug and/or alcohol abuse or mental health issues and 48 percent have both. Nationally, 68 percent of inmates have a history of abusing drugs and/or alcohol and 60 percent have a history of symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald requested the study, titled “Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Improving Incarceration Policies and Practices in Allegheny County,” in 2015.

The final report includes several recommendations to improve the county’s justice system, both economically and ethically. The recommendations include a panel to make sure the recommendations are implemented, the creation of a criminal justice system coordinator position and the expansion of crisis intervention training so that people with mental illnesses or substance use disorders get into effective treatment programs.

“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,” Fitzgerald said in the release.

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Report shows rise in inmates, more black inmates in Allegheny County Jail