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Report documents racial disparities in Allegheny County justice system, offers solutions

Rich Fitzgerald speaks at a lectern.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced a study of racial disparaties in the local justice system on Tuesday.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pitt’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday released a new study on racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice system. While it made nearly 30 recommendations for addressing them, it found that the problem had actually grown worse during the past several years, a time marked by intense debate about criminal justice reforms.

“The criminal justice system has a very complicated task of dealing with disparities that exist within society in general,” said Fred Thieman, a former U.S. Attorney who co-chairs the initiative that undertook the study. The report, he said, was “undertaken with the criminal justice system … with the request that we help them solve this dilemma.”

Black people make up 13% of the county’s population, but they made up 49% of the population in the jail in 2016 — and the report says that percentage has grown to two-thirds, even as the jail’s overall population has declined.

“There are significant racial disparities at almost every point in the criminal justice system and Allegheny County is not alone in that distinction,” said a release accompanying the report. And while there had been “substantial efforts” to improve matters and reduce the population in the Allegheny County Jail, “the racial disparities actually grew.”

Among the findings, the report showed that Black defendants are 10 times more likely than others to be held in jail while awaiting trial, and nine times more likely to be convicted of a felony. Thieman called some of study's numbers "disturbing."

The study was commissioned in 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics and was conducted by two research organizations: the RAND Corporation and RTI International. Researchers followed individuals charged in 2017 through 2019 as they made their way through the legal system.

The report makes 29 recommendations, but it offers two overarching — if familiar — themes: Racial and economic segregation has concentrated poverty and the need for support services in Black communities, and “cumulative trauma … has created a dire need for resources to treat mental health issues, including substance use, that increase criminal behavior.”

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Some proposals made in the report would take effect at the street level, such as recommendations that Pittsburgh police take a less aggressive approach to low-level offenses, and emphasize issuing citations rather than arrests. (Charges resulting in arrest are more common in the city, the report found, while citations are more common in the suburbs.)

The report also urges that magistrates be given “race-blind” paperwork at preliminary arraignments, when bail decisions are made, and that if cash bail is imposed, magistrates would hold a hearing to determine a defendant’s ability to pay it. At the Common Pleas Court level, it proposes that judges, prosecutors, and the public defender’s office seek to create more “problem-solving” courts that seek alternatives to incarceration, including a court focused on “emerging adults” under the age of 26.

Other proposals are more sweeping and would require buy-in from multiple levels of government, including such reforms as “prioritiz[ing] prevention, not punishment,” and investing in crisis-intervention services.

For the most part, “We have focused on things that we could do ourselves,” said Mark Nordenberg, who chairs the Institute of Politics. “We wanted to deal with things that are within our own control.”

The release acknowledges that some of the broader social-service reforms proposed are “largely beyond the reach of leaders within the criminal justice system,” but that officials in other branches could address them.

“As I exit in the next couple of weeks, I’m looking forward to turning this over to the next administration,” said Fitzgerald.

Indeed, some report recommendations echo the platform of incoming County Executive Sara Innamorato, whose criminal justice agenda focused heavily on mental health and community concerns, as well as the campaign of Matt Dugan, the county’s former chief public defender who lost his bid to topple District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. earlier this year.

But such recommendations have been difficult to implement in the past. In early 2023, Pittsburgh Police resumed enforcing low-level traffic offenses despite a city ordinance instructing them not to do so. Public safety officials cited changes in state law as the reason, though the city’s acting chief said the ordinance was hurting police morale and “preventing them from doing their jobs."

Current Police Chief Larry Scirotto said Tuesday that officers are conducting the stops while he works to learn how to reconcile state and city laws.

"To be quite honest I'm at an impasse, and I don't know where we should go [or] where we must go," he said. "Until we have clarity on that, then the officers will continue to enforce the traffic code."

Zappala himself did not appear at the report’s release, and during a debate with Dugan this past fall he seemed unaware that it was being processed. Dugan cited preliminary data from the study, into which he said he had input, and pledged, “We’ll make sure that we’re not exacerbating those disparities.” He pledged to establish a public online dashboard that would break down demographic data on bail and other decisions.

“I don’t know what these guys came — whatever conclusion they came to, but there was nothing communicated that made any sense,” Zappala said during the debate. But he said, "We partner regularly with people who are stakeholders in the criminal justice community" on such questions.

"We do not have cases of driving while black," he added, referring to racially motivated traffic stops. "We do not have that type of conduct by police. That would trigger an immediate concern about some kind of racial disparity."

Officials said Tuesday that the District Attorney's office played a role in the early stages of the research and was made aware of the findings. The DA's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

In any case, many of the recommendations call for further research, including a state-level study of how sentencing guidelines may exacerbate racial disparities, as well as a more localized approach in which policing strategies in communities with low rates of racial disparity are compared to those with higher rates. Other areas the report suggests for further research include studying the use of plea deals, and whether terms offered “are commensurate to the public safety risk posed by individuals” — and a similar look at why probation is revoked at different rates for different races.

Thieman acknowledged the challenges ahead, but he said, “There’s no doubt that the criminal justice system can be improved. The study provides a clear roadmap of how that might be done.”

Chris Potter contributed to this report. This story is developing and will be updated.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.