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Prosecutors Shine a Light on Racial Inequities in Philadelphia’s Justice System

A new report by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office details how decades of racial discrimination in the city have entrenched deep and stubborn inequities within the city’s justice system.

Image of male hands gripping bars of cell.
(wsmahar/ Getty Images)

In 1991, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office sought a death sentence for 16-year-old Robert Saleem Holbrook. Prosecutors accused Holbrook of acting as a lookout during a botched drug deal that resulted in a murder. In an attempt to avoid a death sentence, Holbrook agreed to a plea deal and the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After spending 27 years, roughly two-thirds of his life, incarcerated in a Pennsylvania prison, Holbrook was released in 2018 after the Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences for children. 

In June, Holbrook, who is now executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, stood in front of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia lauding a new report released by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Racial Injustice Report: Disparities in Philadelphia’s Criminal Courts From 2015 – 2022. Analyzing data across eight years, researchers found that Black people are more likely to be stopped, arrested, charged with felonies, convicted, and incarcerated than white people despite making up roughly the same amount of the city’s population.

Holbrook noted that unlike the district attorney who sent him to jail for life, Krasner and his team acknowledged the inequities that have long plagued the office and are working to correct them. 

I’m reminded of past reports by the district attorney’s office that would usually center how many people the district attorney has sent to death row. How many people were sentenced to life without parole. How many people were sentenced to the prison system,” said Holbrook. To have a district attorney now who is issuing reports and centering and correcting the racial disparities in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system is a reminder to me of how far we’ve come in the city. […] We now have a district attorney that’s actually centering community.”

Arnold Ventures’ (AV) grantee, the DAO DATA Lab, a research center within Krasner’s office that tracks criminal justice statistics, wrote the report along with community leaders. 

It provides unprecedented transparency into the city’s criminal legal system and will inform fairer and more equitable practices,” said Rebecca Silber, director of criminal justice at AV. The benefit is that when you build ways to track disparities, you can identify safe and practical policies to reduce those disparities.”

It provides unprecedented transparency into the city’s criminal legal system and will inform fairer and more equitable practices
Rebecca Silber director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures

As part of their research, analysts traced Philadelphia’s racial inequities back to the 1800s, showing that the problem stems from a mixture of long-standing discrimination and over-policing combined with disinvestment in communities of color. The city’s Black population more than doubled after the Civil War as people migrated from the South to escape Jim Crow and the retrenchment of white supremacy. However, these mainly Black migrants were often met with hostility from white residents. According to the report, police used their power to arrest Black people who were thought to be stealing” white jobs and invading” the city. In 1924, for instance, Black Philadelphians made up just 9% of the population but nearly a quarter of all people arrested. Also during that time period, the city’s Puerto Rican, Filipino, Desi, and Vietnamese populations grew, joining the already flourishing Chinese community. But, along with Black people, these populations were continuously excluded from economic opportunities available to white people through the racist process of redlining. 

Discriminatory practices remained pervasive throughout Philadelphia during the War on Drugs as Black and Latinx people were stopped and arrested more often even though most racial groups use drugs at similar rates. Combined with additional changes to criminal law, including three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and the end of early parole, the city’s prison population exploded, more than tripling between 1980 and 1995. Again, Black people were overrepresented while white representation remained largely the same. 

Krasner’s report found that similar disparities still exist throughout every stage of the criminal legal system. Though his office has taken several successful steps to make the system fairer, including ending long probation sentences and cutting incarceration, disparities still remain. 

Part of the problem is that reducing disparate outcomes and reducing overall system impact does not necessarily reduce disproportionalities,” said Krasner in the report. We wrote this report because we can’t fix what we don’t measure. The reform movement requires all of us to look critically at trends that disproportionately impact individuals across racial, ethnic, and cultural groups with a commitment to ensuring justice through evidence-based policy implementation and evaluation.”

Black individuals account for 38% of the city’s population and white people account for roughly the same share: 34%. Yet inequality starts at the earliest stage of the criminal legal system: police stops. Black people comprise 69% of those stopped by police and 62% of individuals arrested. Conversely, white people account for 18% of police stops and 21% of arrests. Even though Philadelphia recently settled a civil rights lawsuit alleging that Black people were illegally stopped and searched, the report found that Black and Latinx people are still more likely to be stopped and frisked. This is despite statistics showing that police are more likely to find contraband on white people. 

Researchers also found that Black people were charged more harshly, making them ineligible for programs such as diversion and more likely to be incarcerated for longer periods. White people, for instance, are most frequently charged with low-level misdemeanors. But Black and Latinx individuals are more likely to be charged with felonies and Black people are more likely to be charged with serious felonies. 

Once a Black person is charged, they’re incarcerated while awaiting trial more often, making it impossible for them to work and care for their families while also creating coercive conditions in which someone is more likely to accept a plea deal to get out. In fact, Black people account for 64% of individuals detained pretrial. In 2018, Krasner made changes to the city’s cash bail policy aimed at promoting fairness among those who were released pretrial, but researchers found that there was only a minor reduction in racial disparities for release without cash bail. 

The report shows that Black people are also disproportionately convicted. Just 24% of people convicted are white, while 57% are Black. Notably, white individuals are least likely to have their cases dismissed, withdrawn, or acquitted while Black and Latinx individuals are much more likely. Because dismissals, withdrawals, or acquittals are typically due to a lack of evidence, misconduct, or innocence, this figure may show that charges against Black and Latinx people are more often unreliable. 

white proportion of the population sentenced to jail or prison in Philadelphia criminal justice system
Black proportion of the population sentenced to jail or prison in Philadelphia's criminal justice system

Finally, according to the report, Black people are much more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison time than white people. White people account for only 15% of people sentenced to incarceration. In contrast, Black people represent 65% of people sentenced to jail or prison and 71% of people sentenced to two or more years despite representing fewer than 60% of people convicted. They also receive the longest sentences on average, data shows. 

Altogether, the data illustrates deeply entrenched racial inequality in Philadelphia’s criminal legal system that is difficult to correct. 

Once a disparity is introduced into the system, either through societal inequality or at arrest through biased or disproportionate policing, that disparity compounds, and is worsened throughout the progress of a criminal case,” said Kate Kelly, one of the lead authors of the report. 

We’re arming folks in the movement to do more. A report like this has never happened in Philadelphia.
Reverend Gregory Holston senior advisor for policy and advocacy in the Philadelphia District Attorney's office

To address these issues, the city must invest in neighborhoods and community organizations and embrace new approaches to justice, researchers say. In 2022, for example, Pennsylvania legislators passed a bill that provided $125 million to homeowners for repairs. That funding will allow homeowners to stay in their homes, therefore creating safer and healthier neighborhoods. Organizations focused on reducing violence and providing programs to their communities also need to be properly funded. And utilizing restorative justice programs that center healing instead of punishment has already yielded positive results. People who completed a restorative justice program through the DA’s office after they were arrested during the 2020 George Floyd protests had a lower rearrest rate than those who were convicted through the courts and incarcerated.

We need to do more to find a way to bring restorative justice values to the mass case processing that the system is going through,” said Kelly.

Improving data collection is also crucial to reducing disparities, according to Wes Weaver, director of analytics for DATA Lab. We need to put numbers to the problem and we need to have better numbers,” he said, noting that his team ran into several problems with the data throughout their analysis, namely that city agencies did not reliably report race. 

We’re arming folks in the movement to do more,” said Reverend Gregory Holston, senior advisor for policy and advocacy in the Philadelphia DA’s office. A report like this has never happened in Philadelphia. Never. Everybody has known this since the time I was a kid. But not never had there been the specific numbers right there, starkly in our face, to sit here and look at what we’re doing. This is just the beginning.”