As New York City prepares to do away with cash bail for thousands of low-level offenders charged with nonviolent crimes, Jim Kenney is weighing a bail proposal for Philadelphia, part of a broader plan to address the city's overcrowded prisons in the event that he wins the mayor's office this fall.
Kenney's campaign spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, declined to provide details on what he is considering. But she said Kenney, who in May won the Democratic nomination for mayor, is looking to reduce the city's prison population while ending what she called "the epidemic of nonviolent offenders being kept in prison because of their inability to make nominal bails."
As recently as Monday, Kenney's staff and stakeholders met to discuss options for bail reform. "It's clear that everyone shares that common goal," Hitt said.
Inmate advocates have long argued that bail unfairly burdens the poor, and their criticism has gained some traction in recent years in other quarters. Across the country, broader prison reform has increasingly drawn bipartisan support, as it addresses both humanitarian and fiscal concerns. New Jersey's legislature last year passed changes that allow judges, starting in 2017, to release certain inmates without bail before trial, a measure supported by Gov. Christie.
In Philadelphia, about 75 percent of the city prison system's approximately 8,000 inmates are awaiting trial. Advocates have said that on any given day, hundreds likely are detained on low-level offenses because they cannot pay relatively small bail amounts.
A prison spokeswoman was unable to provide numbers on how many are awaiting trial for nonviolent crimes. But a request for a list of inmates being held for four nonviolent offenses - retail theft, prostitution, driving under the influence, and fraud - yielded about 200.
The data did not show bail amounts or indicate if the individuals were deemed risks for not appearing in court. But it showed scores of inmates have been held for more than 30 days, including a 50-year-old man held 102 days on a charge of retail theft, and a 30-year-old woman held 119 days on a charge of prostitution.
The discussions led by Kenney and his advisers come as Philadelphia is weighing ways to reduce its prison population, which is above capacity. The city recently received a $150,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation for that purpose, funding that could be followed by an additional $4 million to put in place a plan to reduce the prison population.
At the overcrowded House of Corrections on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia, three inmates are crammed into two-person cells. A move to buy land where a replacement for that 140-year-old prison could be built was met with pushback last month and put on hold at least until City Council reconvenes in September.
David Rudovsky, a lawyer who has spent decades tracking the prison system and has filed several lawsuits related to overcrowding, said that if Kenney wins the general election, as is widely expected, he could find a climate favorable to change.
Rudovsky said he had recently seen an increased level of discussion and cooperation among those working in the criminal justice system. Any proposal from the next mayor would need support from them, including District Attorney Seth Williams.
"The devil is in the details," Rudovsky said. "What is a minor offense? What is low bail? You'll have disagreement, I'm sure, between people in different parts of the system. But I think we can reach a reasonable consensus."
Under New York City's $18 million plan, announced last week, as many as 3,000 people will be placed in court supervision programs as an alternative to bail.
Providers will use a risk assessment tool to pick eligible candidates and determine the level of supervision, including regular check-ins or connection to services that address specific needs.
Separately, New York City Council last month said it was looking to create a $1.4 million fund that would be used to cover bails of $2,000 or less for defendants who cannot afford to pay.
The changes were sparked in part by outrage over the death of Kalief Browder, 22, who committed suicide in June after being released from a three-year incarceration at the city's Rikers Island jail. Browder had been held because his family couldn't afford to pay his $3,000 bail on a charge of stealing a backpack - a charge that was ultimately dismissed.
"Money bail is a problem because ... some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay."
De Blasio's plan has received support from leading law enforcement officials, including the city's police commissioner.
In Philadelphia, Cameron Kline, spokesman for Williams, said office staff and Kenney's campaign advisers had met to discuss changing the bail system. Kline said Williams' office is open to having those discussions but added that the conversation is already happening internally in light of the MacArthur Foundation grant.
Kline declined to comment on whether Williams would support change of the sort underway in New York City, saying he was not familiar enough with the proposal.
Any substantial bail change in Philadelphia is likely to receive pushback from some of those concerned about the long-term consequences.
Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said critics will worry about individuals' failing to appear in court - the main purpose of bail is to make them show up - or, while free on bail, committing a more serious crime than the one for which they were charged.
If such a crime occurs, O'Donnell said, "the reaction is going to be, that would not have happened if the city had not allowed this guy to get bailed out."