Chesco Prison Population Decreases

Daily Local News – 8 Jan. 2017

WEST CHESTER >> The number of inmates at the Chester County Prison, once over 1,000 and leading to consistently overcrowded conditions, is currently at a low point, largely due to proactive efforts by county probation and prison officials designed to get inmates out of prison and on a path to leading productive, law-abiding lives.

As of Wednesday, the daily head count of inmates at the Pocopson facility stood at 746, a number that includes not only those people held on bail awaiting trail and those who have been sentenced to terms that are served in county, rather than state prison, but also those inmates who are being held there by agreement on state parole violations and thus technically not county offenders.

That number is a drop from a recent high monthly inmates census of 959 in 2014, and average populations of 893 and 819 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Those figures themselves are far below the averages in the 1990s when the population was regularly over 1,000 inmates, and prisoners were held in makeshift cell areas formerly used as gymnasiums and work rooms.

“It is a big deal,” commented prison Warden Edward McFadden last week when asked about the new figures. “It has been at least 15 years since the population has been so low.”

Christopher Murphy, the county’s chief adult probation officer, said his department had worked with the prison and the rest of the court system, including the county’s bail agency, to attempt to reduce the prison population by utilizing a number of programs meant to keep those who realistically should not be sitting in a prison cell instead of working or caring for their families, and to give them the tools to keep from committing new crimes or violating their parole or probation requirements.

“It shows that what we are doing is working,” said Murphy in an interview with his chief assistant, Jennifer Lopez, on Wednesday. “It is a collaborative effort. We try to find out what their needs are, so that the likelihood of their success is increased. In overseeing cases, we try to help them attain their goals instead of just checking a box when they do.”

The news drew praise from county commissioners Vice Chairwoman Kathi Cozzone, who heads the county’s Prison Board. “I appreciate the collaborative approach that the county has been taking, and will continue to take, to address issues related to jail populations,” she said last week in a statement. “The combined efforts of our courts, probation and parole, the district attorney’s office, human services and prison administrators have led to some very effective and innovative programs that safely provide treatment and support that are real alternatives to incarceration.

“These programs are now clearly making a difference for our families, our communities and for taxpayers, helping those with mental health or substance-abuse issues to increase their opportunities to become productive members of society,” said Cozzone.

Although McFadden and Murphy said the trend in this county was opposite what they find in other county prisons across the state, the trend in incarceration rates nationally has been on the decline recently.

According to the New York Times, the nation’s jail and prison population decreased in 2015 and the number of adults locked up or on parole or probation fell to a level not seen since 2002, while overall crime continued to drop.

The Times stated that reasons for the declining incarceration rates include the federal prison system releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in 2015 and states seeking to save money by enacting legislation and policies to reduce prison populations.

In California, for example, Proposition 47 — approved by voters in 2014 — retroactively reduced some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Other states have offered expanded substance abuse treatment programs, established specialty courts and spent more money on re-entry programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

In 2015, there were 6.7 million adults in jail, prison, on parole or probation, according to the figures cited by the times.

The figure represents about one in 37, or 2.7 percent, of all adults in the United States, a level far higher than in most other nations but the lowest rate in America since 1994. Of those 6.7 million adults, some 2.2 million were in local jails or in state and federal prisons — about 51,000 fewer than in 2014.

In the county, crime rates have stayed fairly consistent over the past three years. In 2016, there were 4,734 criminal cases filed in Common Pleas Court, compared with 4,757 in 2015 and 4,462 in 2014.

For their part, Murphy and Lopez said that the Common Pleas Court president judges since 2000 had shown deep concern over the prison’s growing population, and had been supportive of their efforts to initiating programs that would reduce not only the census but the recidivism rate of county offenders.

Murphy said, for example, that when he arrived in 2007 from Montgomery County, there were no probation officers in place at the prison to work out “pre-release plans” for those coming up on their parole dates. Offenders could walk out of the prison without a place to live, or with an out-of-date address. Left to their own designs, they frequently would end up on the streets and getting into further troubles.

“That was not conducive to success,” he said. “It led them to a bad environment.” Now, there are probate staff at the prison on an almost daily basis.

Lopez said the attitude of the prison and probation staffs had changed to focus more on who should rightfully be in prison and who should be trying to get out of the criminal justice system. “How can we get them back into the community in a positive way?” she said the new attitude had become. “I think we’ve gotten smarter.”

The pair cited three key programs in place that had helped reduce the prison population: collections court, which transfers those who owe fines or costs out of the normal probation system into a place where they are not penalized with additional prison time for failing to pay; the Swift Alternative Violation Enforcement (SAVE) program, which targets high-risk offenders who have a history of probation violations but gets them in and out of the court review faster so they ended up having shorter stays; and the Women’s Reentry Assessment Program, which identifies female offenders with a history of trauma and provides them with case management and counseling services to help them cope with life outside the prison.

McFadden said the most important factor in the success was the energy put into the effort by all concerned. “We work very well together,” he said. “The cooperation between departments is like no other. In doing so, we focus on the question of ‘if someone doesn’t need to be in jail, they shouldn’t be in jail.’”