Sometimes detainers are triggered when a person commits what’s called a technical violation, like failing to report to a probation officer or missing curfew. They can also be triggered by a new charge, as with Guzman-Vegas. On one hand, a detainer is somewhat of a second-strike penalty, because a person who’s already been convicted of a crime is again suspected of wrongdoing. But even the most minor of infractions can still result in defendants behind bars, while the backlogged court system processes their cases. Virtually the only alternative to waiting, and putting any work or personal obligations on hold, is to take a plea deal.
The pretrial detention of people who cannot afford bail is in many ways an easier cause for reform-minded advocates and policy makers to rally behind—they cut a more sympathetic figure, provided that poverty is the chief or only barrier to their freedom before trial. But to some lawyers who work with those on detainer, their clients represent a path to reform that’s hidden in plain sight. “Detainers are a very serious issue for our clients,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief public defender. “When someone has an open case, they are often held for months on end, causing significant personal hardships and making it harder for the individual to assist in their own defense.”
Despite the high number of people held on detainers, they rarely surface in public discussions about reducing Philadelphia’s jail population, which is housed in a six-facility complex in the city’s northeast. In recent years, crime rates have dropped here, but the city has stubbornly retained the highest rate of incarceration among the 10 largest U.S. cities. After officials secured a multimillion-dollar grant last year to reduce jail numbers, the population shrunk by about 12 percent, according to city data compiled through April. The downsize is largely attributed to reforms to the cash-bail system and shortened sentences for low-level nonviolent offenses, like DUIs.
By contrast, the number of people on this type of detainer has actually grown in the past year: from 2,800 in June 2016 to 3,302 in March. “The increase is disturbing,” David Rudovsky, a civil-rights attorney who has litigated against the city multiple times for jail overcrowding, wrote in an email. The specific reduction goals outlined in last year’s grant—issued by the MacArthur Foundation, which also supports “The Presence of Justice”—won’t be met “unless steps are taken to limit or more quickly deal with these detainers.” Rudovsky learned of the recent uptick from my inquiry, and added that “historically, too many persons have been held on detainers, and for too long.”
The city has taken some steps to reduce the number of detainees. One early experiment, led by the outgoing district attorney’s office, focused on probationers who are caught using drugs, another type of technical violation. As of April, 45 of them were offered drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. That effort, though, is perhaps the easiest officials could take: Those offenders are some of least cumbersome to identify and weed out. It doesn’t take a long hearing to determine that someone who was under supervision for drug use and was again caught using may benefit from medical intervention.