Fewer people being released from Philly jails as pool of eligible cases shrinks

Efforts to cut Philadelphia’s jail population to limit the spread of COVID-19 have slowed down while pressure mounts to keep the wheels of justice turning.

The county correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The county correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Over the last six weeks, more than 1,300 people incarcerated at Philadelphia’s four county jails were released under an emergency court order to help limit the spread of COVID-19 inside. An average of 221 nonviolent offenders — most of them accused, but not convicted — were released each week.

But new data from the Defender Association of Philadelphia shows that process is slowing down as the pool of eligible clients shrink and defense lawyers turn their attention to those with charges that require more traditional casework to move things forward.

“We have pretty much done all of those cases where we could just look at the specific charge and put them on a list for release,” said Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey.

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On April 7, roughly a month after the coronavirus pandemic reached Philadelphia, a small group of city judges began presiding over dozens of fast-tracked hearings.

By the end of the first week, the hearings, along with written petitions, resulted in 251 people being released from State Road, where all four city jails are located.

By the end of last week, 102 county inmates had been released, the lowest total since the emergency order took effect. And the Defender Association, which has handled the majority of the cases under a court-brokered agreement, expects that downward trend to continue. This as the overall jail population begins to creep up again, in part because the Philadelphia Police Department ended its emergency freeze on making arrests for certain offenses, including burglary and retail theft.

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On May 18, the county jail population stood at 3,809, nearly 20% lower than when Philadelphia’s courts were shut down in mid-March.

At the same time, pressure is mounting on the city and the First Judicial District to keep the wheels of justice turning during a public health crisis that continues to impact critical court functions, including preliminary hearings and criminal trials, which were recently placed on hold until further notice, putting the future of many cases in limbo and families and their loved ones on edge.

Amanda Skinner is scared her husband Joseph will have a severe asthma attack while he’s waiting for his next court date inside Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, where he’s been locked up since he was arrested on drug charges last July.

The anxiety of being behind bars during a pandemic has already impacted his breathing, she said.

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“He’s been using his rescue inhaler more and more,” Skinner said.

Before the pandemic, Skinner said her husband was offered plea deals. He rejected them, opting instead to take his chances in front of a jury.

“Now he feels like he’s being punished for taking it to trial,” Skinner said.

Meanwhile, officials with the courts and county jail system are discussing the possibility of adding more virtual portals so more clients can safely discuss their cases with their defense attorneys, and so those cases can begin moving toward resolution.

Attorneys are not barred from conducting in-person interviews on State Road, but far fewer of them have exercised that option during the coronavirus pandemic, according to city data.

“That is a hard thing to do to walk into a prison when you don’t know what you’re walking into. And also we could bring things into that prison, so we’re really relegated to the teleportals that are in the criminal justice center,” Bradford-Grey said.

On Tuesday, the city announced it will test all people held in county prisons for COVID-19 instead of just those who are showing symptoms of the virus.

Currently, just three people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s jails are confirmed positive for the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, one has died and nearly 200 have tested positive, and inmates have complained that cramped conditions and bad hygiene have allowed the virus to spread inside.

Each county jail has one closed-circuit video portal, which is shared by the courts, public defenders and private attorneys. The equipment is owned by the First Judicial District, which also fields attorney requests to use it.

Stakeholders say they are open to adding more tech, but it’s unclear if or when that would happen.

“These are difficult times that require the court to prioritize operations in order to accomplish the shared goal of steadily broadening the current range of court functions; including ensuring the safety and rights of our citizens, as well as promoting the general well-being of the public, court employees, and court users during what remains an unpredictable and challenging time,” said FJD spokesperson Gabriel Roberts.

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