PITTSBURGH – County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pitt’s Institute of Politics today released a major new study on racial disparities in the county’s Criminal Justice System, titled, Creating a Path Forward to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System in Allegheny County. The study was commissioned by Pitt’s Institute of Politics (Institute or IOP) and was conducted by two research organizations, the RAND Corporation and RTI International.
The RAND Corporation and RTI International collaborated in developing and deploying a distinctive mixed-methods approach, combining both quantitative and qualitative research. Because the pandemic interfered with the normal operation of the system in later years, their work focused on the period from 2017 to 2019. During that time period, 88,511 new criminal charges were filed.
“Recognizing that there are significant racial disparities in our criminal justice system nationwide, in 2016, we initiated an in-depth look at our system locally to identify opportunities for improvements with a goal to reduce racial disparities,” said Fitzgerald. “This report is the latest step in that effort and provides a qualitative and quantitative look at each step of the system, and provides recommendations based on that work.”
Again, there are significant racial disparities at almost every point in the criminal justice system and Allegheny County is not alone in that distinction. Substantial efforts to improve the criminal justice system and reduce the population of the jail have been successful, but the racial disparities actually grew during that effort. Though Black people made up just 13 percent of the county’s population, Black people comprised 49 percent of the population of the Allegheny County Jail in 2016. By 2021, though the number of Black people held in the county Jail had decreased as the overall population of the Jail was reduced, clearly a favorable development, the percentage of Black people in the Jail’s population had risen to 66 percent. In 2022, that percentage was 65 percent, and it currently stands at 67 percent.
Though other studies have calculated such disparities at specific points in the county’s criminal justice system, none of them have pushed further to develop the more focused data that could provide the foundation for well-informed efforts to address these disparities through improvements to the system. As described in the research report itself: “although these prior studies were able to document racial disparities at particular decision points within the Allegheny County criminal justice system, no study had conducted a systematic assessment of the size of racial disparities at all key junctures of the system. Furthermore, these studies did not identify the specific reasons for these racial disparities, which is a critical step in identifying policies that can potentially mitigate these disparities.”
To facilitate that critical next step, this report includes twenty-nine recommendations for reform. They touch every stage of the criminal justice system and involve changes to existing practices and procedures; the development or replication of innovative models; enhancements in data transparency, analysis and evaluation; and policy analysis.
“I appreciate the work that the IOP has done around this issue. The efforts by Mark Nordenberg and Frederick Thieman, Co-Chairs of the Criminal Justice Initiative, and Samantha Balbier, Director of the IOP, cannot be understated. Their reports and suggested plans of action have been instrumental in our successes to date,” Fitzgerald continue. “Just as importantly, none of this would have been possible without the leadership of our judicial leaders, including President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark and Administrative Judge of the Criminal Division Judge Jill Rangos. Their work and cooperation throughout this process has only underscored their deep desire and interest in making changes that can improve the legal system for participants.”
As has been noted, in addition to the quantitative research, which was conducted by the RAND Corporation, this initiative also featured qualitative research, which was conducted by RTI International. Again, as described in the report itself: “The research team used a mixed-methods approach to conduct this research, which integrated statistical analysis of administrative data for all key decision points in the criminal justice system (i.e., quantitative analysis) with analysis of interviews with 40 community members and 20 system professionals who work in the Allegheny County criminal justice system (i.e., qualitative analysis).”
This qualitative research shed additional light on improvements that might be made to the criminal justice system. It also served as a reminder that making improvements to the system itself, as important as that can be in reducing racial disparities, will not eliminate them. That point is forcefully made by two of the key themes that emerged from the qualitative research:
- “Racial and economic segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in Black neighborhoods and a dire need for investment in education, public health, housing and other resources;” and
- “Cumulative trauma across the lifespan has created a dire need for resources to treat mental health issues, including substance use, that increase criminal behavior.”
Addressing such deeply embedded social problems is largely beyond the reach of leaders within the criminal justice system. However, such findings and recommendations could help shape the policy agendas of elected officials with broader responsibilities and authority.
Other noteworthy features of the initiative, include the fact that it was administered by a third-party, objective community partner, the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics. The research was undertaken by two independent research organizations, the RAND Corporation and RTI International. And the work was funded entirely by local philanthropies, most notably by the Heinz Endowments.
The initiative also was structured so that it would be informed both by perspectives from within the system and perspectives held within the broader community. At every stage of the process, from the initial selection of the research team to the review of drafts of the final research report, professionals from within Allegheny County’s criminal justice system were involved. Community members whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system, as well as professionals who work with them, also were engaged, both through the qualitative research and through their participation in key committees.
As new leaders assume positions in the county, the important work of implementation will become their responsibility. This report should give them a significant head-start in dealing effectively with a critical problem. Progress on this key front would help the county fulfill the vision advanced in the IOP’s 2016 Criminal Justice Task Force Report, that “the processes of the criminal justice system should be fair; socially and financially equitable; and structured to avoid even the appearance of bias, particularly racial or ethnic bias.”
# # #
Media inquiries may be directed to Amie Downs, Director of Communications. She can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 412.350.3711 or 412.327.3700 (cell).