PHILADELPHIA (April TKTK, 2022) – A new published white paper by the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office (DAO), shows alternatives to incarceration for people who are arrested for low-level offenses reduce recidivism and costs to taxpayers.
The study, led by Dr. Viet Nguyen of the Department of Criminology at the University of the Pennsylvania, assessed the impact of the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP), a community service-oriented diversion program, on people arrested for low-level offenses in Philadelphia. The study involves misdemeanor cases eligible and ineligible for AMP from 2009 to 2011 and follows their activity through 2016. Among the study’s important findings: AMP reduced five-year reconviction rates by 35% and led to an estimated 45% reduction in future sentenced supervision time. Factoring in reduced costs related to incarceration and probation, AMP reduces crime and frees up public dollars that could be better invested in public goods and services such as public health and education.
Dr. Nguyen’s study covers a version of AMP that is much more restrictive than present-day diversion programs, particularly those under District Attorney Larry Krasner. When it was introduced in 2010, AMP offered a lighter and more constructive type of accountability for defendants as compared to the other options at the time: a conviction and a sentence of jail or probation, or accountability without a conviction through the Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition (ARD) program, the only diversionary program available to individuals charged with misdemeanors at that time.
Instead of an enduring conviction (with its disabling effects in future employment, education, housing, etc.) followed by jail and probation or a drawn out, probation-like experience under ARD, AMP held defendants accountable by requiring that participants complete 12 to 18 hours of community service and pay modest restitution in exchange for a more rapid dismissal of the case.
The fees required of AMP participants were significantly lower than those associated with a conviction followed by a sentence or the ARD program. AMP excluded people with violent misdemeanor offenses who had been convicted within the previous 10 years. People who successfully completed AMP were eligible for automatic expungement (or erasure) of the case from public criminal records.
The Penn study compared defendants who would have been eligible for AMP to people ineligible for AMP due to their current offense or prior history before and after the introduction of AMP.
The study found that AMP produced enormous benefits, including:
- 35% reduction in five-year re-conviction rates
- an estimated 45% reduction in costly sentenced supervision time and a 38% reduction in future court fees over a five-year window
- 32% reduction in cases sentenced to jail or probation
- 69% increase in expungement rates among eligible defendants, removing barriers to employment and housing caused by having convictions or longstanding diversionary supervision on their criminal records
- 50% increase in the diversion rate of eligible defendants
“Public safety demands that we pursue accountability for defendants in ways that produce less harm to communities. To some, harsh punishment might feel good to impose — but that doesn’t make us safer. We must pull back on aspects of the criminal legal system that drive people toward crime rather than away from it,” DA Krasner said. “Dr. Nguyen’s research project further confirms that some punitive and restrictive approaches merely fuel cycles of recidivism and create barriers to successful reentry of people who have been held accountable for their crimes. Diverting people away from costly prison and supervision and providing opportunities for them to find stability and purpose in their lives is proven to make us safer, while yielding cost savings for taxpayers that must be re-invested in prevention of crime.”
Alternatives to costly incarceration and supervision such as treatment, community service, and other social programming are a more restorative and just approach in many cases involving misdemeanor offenses and are necessary to reduce stark racial disparities in prisons. The DAO is committed to improving upon diversion programs including AMP, which has changed significantly since 2010, including by advocating for the elimination of fines, costs, and fees. Current programs and those under development adhere to these four basic tenets:
- Light-touch programming, not lengthy probation or incarceration
- Low or no fees
- Accountability through positive social activities such as community service
- Automatic expungement after completion
More than 14,000 people have successfully completed AMP since 2010.
Despite these positive outcomes, AMP is not a panacea. The average amount of fines and costs required through AMP is approximately $220. Since 2010, 35% of people who were admitted to AMP failed to complete the program for financial reasons. The average amount in fines and costs still owed by this group is approximately $160. Aside from the financial burden AMP fines and costs place on participants, AMP also has capacity constraints on the number of people who can be diverted. Entrance requirements for the program can be overly restrictive.
To counter these potential barriers to entry, the DAO has been piloting AMP-like alternatives to prosecution and incarceration outside of a formal diversion context. For instance, in response to a pause in new admissions into AMP since 2020 due to the pandemic, the DAO has withdrawn drug possession charges for more than 1,500 people who successfully completed AMP-like requirements with no fines and costs required. Because these discretionary measures are informal, they do not require the payment of fees and act more equitably across race, ethnicity, and relative poverty.
More information on diversion programs and alternatives to prosecution and incarceration in Philadelphia can be found on the DAO’s website: PhillyDA.org.
Research by Dr. Nguyen was conducted under the supervision of Dr. Aurelie Ouss, Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ouss is co-principal investigator with Dr. Greg Ridgeway of a project investigating the impact of policies and programs in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. The research collaboration between the DAO and the University of Pennsylvania was launched in 2020, with the support of Arnold Ventures and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The research reported here has been submitted to an academic journal for peer-review and was conducted independently. To learn more about this project and access research publications produced by or in collaboration with the DAO, visit Data.PhilaDAO.com.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.