Creating a Path Forward to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System in Allegheny County

In 2015, at the request of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics (IOP) assembled a task force to identify strategies to improve the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. The task force’s reports highlighted that Allegheny County’s criminal justice system disproportionately involves the Black community, which also had been shown in several prior studies. In particular, prior analyses conducted by local system professionals showed that Black individuals comprise 66% of the Allegheny County jail population despite comprising only 13% of county residents. However, 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 address these gaps in understanding the extent of racial disparities in the Allegheny County criminal justice system and the reasons for these disparities, the IOP issued a request for proposals seeking research partners to conduct a study aimed at examining policies, practices, and outcomes at numerous decisionmaking points that could be contributing to racial disparities. The IOP emphasized that the research should consider systemic factors and organizational culture that may perpetuate or exacerbate disparities and how the successive stages of system involvement are interconnected. It should also include the perspectives of community members and people working in the Allegheny County criminal justice system.

This report, written by RAND Corporation and RTI International researchers, presents the results of that research. The research team used a mixed-methods approach to conduct this research, which integrated statistical analysis of administrative data for all key decision points inthe 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). There are four components to the mixed-methods approach that was used to conduct this study: 1. Identification of the size of the racial disparity at each of the following stages of the Allegheny County criminal justice system: law enforcement, pretrial detention, criminal court, and probation. 2. For every stage where a racial disparity was identified, in-depth analyses were conducted to identify the core drivers of the racial disparity. 3. Inclusion of extensive input from community members with lived experience and system professionals who work within the criminal justice system. 4. Development of recommendations to reduce racial disparities that begin to address the root causes of the disparities.

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This report is part of the RAND Corporation External publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.

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