Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Allegheny County, Pa.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on the subject. Scroll to the end to see the most recent posts in the series.
The nation has been captivated by reports of rising crime and the wave of criminal justice reform. Some news outlets and elected officials claim a correlation between the two, but this is perhaps a hasty assessment. In order to better understand how criminal justice reform efforts could be affecting increases in crime, we will be digging into the data, history and current criminal justice reform efforts of six Safety and Justice Challenge sites across the United States. Readers can learn about unique criminal justice reform initiatives in these communities as well as whether the implementation of these efforts (or lack thereof) could be associated with an increase or decrease in crime. To learn more about this series, you can access the introduction here.
Allegheny County, Pa., home to the “Steel City,” Pittsburgh, is known for its iconic rivers, hundreds of bridges and claim to multiple national championships across their professional sports teams. Over 100 law enforcement agencies serve approximately 1.2 million people and cover the 730 square miles of the county.
From 2016 to 2021, violent and property crimes in Allegheny County have dropped significantly: falling 40 and 50 percent, respectively. Allegheny County’s average daily jail population also fell significantly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has remained at that low level into 2022. The graph below shows the drop in crime and in jail population from 2016-2021.
Almost all the individual crimes—rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and larcenies—dropped dramatically from their six-year highs. Rapes and motor vehicle thefts saw an increase during that time, but both have still declined over the last two years. Murders dropped from 2017 to 2019, but then saw an increase in 2020 and remained steady in 2021. The graph below shows these individual crime trends.
Criminal Justice Reform Efforts
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County voters were swift to enact some police reforms–such as banning no-knock warrants in the city and limiting the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County jail–following high-profile cases like the officer-caused death of Breonna Taylor. Other criminal justice reform efforts in Allegheny County have been more grassroots-collaborative rather than legislative, and have focused on behavioral health issues and reducing jail populations. Allegheny County has implemented behavioral health-related reforms such as problem-solving courts—Mental Health Court, Drug Court, Veteran’s Court, PRIDE Court (prostitution cases) and DUI Court—and jail-based diversion, sending individuals from jail to alcohol and/or substance abuse treatment. Three additional criminal justice reform initiatives that help reduce jail populations in Allegheny County are further highlighted below.
Allegheny County, in partnership with CONNECT and the Allegheny County Health Department, recently submitted a proposal to pilot a police-initiated diversion program through Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) in three municipal cohorts within the county. The proposal is in response to individuals at all levels of the Allegheny County criminal justice system feeling burnt out by a high volume of low-level cases and wanting to focus their limited resources on more serious crimes. LEAD allows officers who encounter a person committing a low-level offense (for example, possession of small amounts of drugs or prostitution), to divert the person to a case manager, who provides a wide range of supportive services, in lieu of arrest and prosecution. Police can also make a “social contact” referral from the jail or the community. The county has already secured funding and buy-in for the LEAD pilot and expect to roll out the program in 2022. A similar voluntary diversion program, run by the Foundation of Hope, is already in operation in Pittsburgh and connects referred individuals from the police and the community with resources structured to their needs in order to avoid current or future criminal charges. The program, which started serving adults in 2020, has already seen success. In information provided in the program’s 2021 annual summary report, the program served 28 participants with long-term case management and had 500 service contacts with zero participants overdosing or recidivating. Pittsburgh is also looking to expand diversion services through their own LEAD program. Considering that approximately 75 percent of the Allegheny County jail population has behavioral health issues, these programs provide a much-needed service to individuals and have been shown to reduce recidivism while freeing up law enforcement time and county resources.
The Pittsburgh Municipal Court has had a fairly robust pretrial services program for over a decade, but in 2018 the county implemented a centralized process and hired two new staff members to provide pretrial risk assessments for the rest of the 35 district courts in Allegheny County. The court uses the recommendations from the assessment, which never recommend monetary bail, to inform their decisions on setting bail and any needed conditions. Research supports pretrial risk assessments ability to identify an individual’s likelihood of failure to appear in court as well as the potential for positive outcomes on pretrial decisions and releases. During the same time the county started use of pretrial assessments, it expanded public defender representation at first appearance to assist indigent defendants in addressing outstanding bonds. Similarly, the District Attorney’s Office created two new pretrial screening unit positions to help avoid postponements of arraignment. Because of these efforts, courts used monetary bonds 39 percent less often than in 2018. Some judges have even touted not using cash bail in years. Unfortunately, without county-wide policy regarding the use of cash bail, monetary conditions can be inconsistent from courtroom to courtroom. As a result, while the number of individuals incarcerated pending trial has fallen 24 percent from January 2018 to May 2022, the county reports that 60 percent of individuals arrested are still unable to bond out.
In 2018, the largest percentage of jailed individuals were being detained for probation violations. In response, Allegheny County created strategies to reduce the number and length of detainers for individuals accused of probation violations. These strategies included policy changes limiting the use of detainers and expediting their removal, establishing a multidisciplinary team to review cases of people held on detainers, and creating a more effective procedure to resolve probation violations and new charges with one hearing. The Probation Department also continues to collaborate with the courts to identify ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated on probation violations safely. As a result of these efforts, from January 2018 to May 2022, the number of people detained by the Allegheny County’s Probation Department dropped 45 percent. In addition, individuals accused of probation violations served (on average) 84 days less in jail. This reduction in detainers and length of time spent in jail is important as research shows that long periods of incarceration can cause individuals to lose employment, housing or custody of their children, challenging the success of reentry.
Jailing individuals is expensive. In Allegheny County, it costs approximately $77.40 per night to hold someone in jail. The efforts that Allegheny County have implemented through probation and bail reforms and pre-arrest diversion tactics are a fiscally responsible option that upholds individuals’ rights without compromising public safety. Further, increased support through programs like LEAD and pretrial services can better serve the high number of individuals suffering from behavioral health issues that the county has seen.
Evaluation of the collected data shows there is no correlation between the criminal justice reform efforts in Allegheny County and an increase in crime.
Overall, property and violent crime have decreased in Allegheny County over the last six years, with murder rates being the only category to see an increase in the last two years. Given the data trends, these crimes could not have increased due to reform efforts in Allegheny County during this same time. If anything, the reduction in these crimes while the county implemented probation and bail reforms would indicate a positive correlation of reducing crime. It is important to note, however, that while the Foundation of Hope has been running their adult diversion program the last couple years with documented success, the effect of the expansion of pre-arrest diversion in the other municipalities is not yet known.
While the increase in murders over the past two years is concerning, the rate remains less than the number of murders reported from 2016, 2017 and 2018. In fact, the reduction in murders in 2019 follows the county’s bail and reform efforts mostly implemented in 2018. The increase in murders in 2020 also seems to follow national trends. Therefore, it is concluded that the recent increase in murders is not as a result of reforms implemented by Allegheny County.
This post will be updated with links to each part in the series.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Introduction
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Broward County, Fla.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Clark County, Nev.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on City of St. Louis, Mo.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Allegheny County, Pa.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Baton Rouge, La.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Spotlight on Missoula, Mont.
- Criminal Justice Reform Efforts and Rise in Crime: Conclusion