PHILADELPHIA (December 15, 2021) – The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Transparency Analytics (DATA) Lab this week completed a technological update that will improve accuracy of information about crime and justice in Philadelphia for the benefit of law enforcement and criminal legal system partners, legislators and policymakers, and members of the media, academia, and the public. This update also provides previously unreported information about arrests for illegal gun possession in Philadelphia.
Prior to this update, the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) Public Data Dashboard used the Philadelphia Police Department’s original classification of an arrest which relied on FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) system arrest classifications. Consistency with PPD classifications allowed DAO Data Dashboard users to follow a group of arrests through the court system. For example, if the DAO Data Dashboard showed 100 “theft” arrests in one year, a user could find the number of “theft” arrests that resulted in “theft” cases charged that year.
However, there were two main trade-offs for maintaining uniformity with PPD classifications:
- It was not easy to follow when the DAO applied charges other than those suggested by police after arrest. For example, an arrest for “theft” by police, followed by subsequent review of submitted evidence and witness interviews by DAO prosecutors, could instead result in charges of “residential burglary.” But the arrest would still be categorized on the DAO Data Dashboard as “theft” – leaving “residential burglary” cases under-counted and “theft” cases over-counted.
- Police could only assign one crime category to an incident. For example, an arrest by police of a drug seller and a drug buyer would both be categorized as “drug sales,” despite both actions being different and therefore different offense categories applied in charging. This resulted in an under-count of “drug possession” arrests and cases and an over-count of “drug sales” arrests and cases on the DAO Dashboard. The distinction between the two offense categories is important to consider when assessing recommendations to judges for pre-trial incarceration (versus diversion to substance use disorder treatment, for example) and sentence length.
Earlier this year, Philadelphia Police stopped using UCR classifications for offenses and transitioned to using National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) classifications — a welcome development that should bring Philadelphia crime data reporting into greater alignment with most major jurisdictions, helping to inform a clearer understanding of crime in the United States. This update to Philadelphia Police criminal incident and arrest reporting presented an opportunity for the DAO to also update criminal case data reporting.
The DAO Dashboard now offers a more accurate picture of arrests and charges in two significant ways:
- Arrests are classified by police, while cases in the court system are classified by how the DAO charges the case. Now, if police arrest a person and suggest a charge of “theft” while the DAO charges the person with “burglary” in court, the incident is more accurately counted as a “theft” arrest and a “burglary” case charged.
- The DAO Dashboard uses a charge-based classification system. Arrests are classified by the offenses that police recommend for charging, rather than using UCR categories. Cases opened by the DAO are classified by the charges brought in court, rather than the police UCR categorization. A drug transaction resulting in arrest of two people will now present as a drug sale case and a drug possession case, rather than two drug sale cases. This will lessen confusion and misinterpretation of when cash bail is applied, which is more frequently to people arrested for selling drugs than to people arrested for possessing drugs.
In addition to greater data accuracy about arrests and charges, the DAO Dashboard update provides more refined data about criminal cases. For example, offenses such as Attempted Homicide, Strangulation, and Ethnic Intimidation are not UCR categories, and therefore did not appear on the previous version of the Dashboard. The DAO Dashboard now includes these additional offense categories:
- Shooting Homicides and Non-Shooting Homicides
- Attempted Murder
- Robbery with a Deadly Weapon
- Simple Assault
- Fraud and Theft of Services (previously they were lumped together)
- Criminal Mischief
- Drug Sales with a Firearm
- Drug Possession in Jails
Illegal Firearm Possession has now been broken out into four categories:
- Firearm Possession by a Prohibited Person (18 Pa.C.S. § 6105)
The DAO Dashboard now presents gun violence data much more accurately by breaking out the different types of homicide and shootings, allowing the public to see how shooting homicides, non-shooting homicides, and non-fatal shootings have changed over time.
The DAO Dashboard also presents more fine-tuned data on the two main categories of illegal gun possession in Pennsylvania:
- Possession of a firearm by a person who has been prohibited from carrying guns due to a past serious conviction (18 Pa.C.S. § 6105). This is generally viewed as the most serious illegal gun possession statute.
- Possession of a firearm without a license (18 Pa.C.S. § 6106). These are generally viewed as less serious than possession by a prohibited person.
These updates make it possible to see that the recent, highly reported rise in illegal gun possession arrests and cases in Philadelphia has largely been for gun possession without a license, rather than possession by prohibited persons:
These improvements also clarify how the criminal legal system addresses cases involving persons convicted of prior felony offenses versus cases involving persons who have no prior felony conviction.
For more details on the DAO Dashboard update, including improvements in the accuracy of drug offenses data, see this DAO Data Story. To receive monthly crime data for homicides, non-fatal shootings, and other serious offenses, sign up for our Justice Journal newsletter.
Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, [email protected]
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 prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.