Pennsylvania’s laws are designed to get tough on crime. However, there is no question that Pennsylvania’s large prison population is a result of these laws. This influx of new prisoners has proven to be quite costly on the state’s budget every year. In 1980, state prisons housed over 8,200 prisoners at an average cost of $11,400 each. By December 2011, the state corrections system held over 51,600 inmates at an average cost of $34,200. The recent explosive growth in the prison population underscores the need for change.
With over 27 corrections facilities statewide, Pennsylvania’s maximum prison capacity is 48,300 individuals, making the Commonwealth well over its capacity. In an effort to deal with over population, former Gov. Ed Rendell announced in 2010 that Pennsylvania would contract with Michigan and Virginia to move 2,000 low-risk inmates to facilities in those states. However, Governor Tom Corbett, by March 2012, declared that these individuals would be returned to the Commonwealth. In the meantime, our state has committed $600 million to build three new prisons by next year. Each facility will cost $50 million to operate, and each is expected to be full the day it opens.
Feeling that we must do something and quickly, in January, Governor Corbett, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille, and legislative leaders convened a bipartisan, inter-branch Justice Reinvestment Working Group to develop a policy framework to improve public safety, reduce recidivism and manage spending on corrections since this area remains one of the largest allocations in each year’s budget.
According to the PA Department of Corrections, nonviolent offenders make up nearly two-thirds of new commitments. When it comes to changes to the corrections system, one of the most important aspects must be to maintain public safety. Because so many of the individuals in the state corrections system are not a harm to society, these individuals were one of the main areas that the working group recommended making changes to, which would result in millions of dollars in savings.
On July 5, Senate Bill 100 (SB 100) was signed into law, creating the Criminal Justice Reform Act (Act 122). This new law essentially reshapes Pennsylvania’s corrections system to give a second chance to nonviolent offenders and parole violators through a non-prison setting and reserves state prisons for only the most dangerous criminals.
In Pennsylvania, our corrections system locks up more people for longer periods of time, but fails to deter future crimes. What the working group has found is that punishment without rehabilitation is a failed policy. One of the biggest problems facing Pennsylvania’s prisons is recidivism, which is when inmates find themselves in trouble with the law again mostly because they are not given the right tools while serving time to be able to function in society. In fact, according to the Department of Corrections, nearly 44 percent of all inmates released from prison will return within three years.
Act 122 tackles this problem through a new comprehensive community re-entry program that helps inmates make the best of their skills in seeking employment once they leave prison. The program will be a collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Parole Board and will utilize community based organizations.
Furthermore, the Justice Reinvestment Working Group pointed out that halfway houses serve two very distinctly different types of people: parolees and pre-release inmates and has become an issue. Pre-release is something an inmate is eligible for near the end of their sentence as long as they meet certain guidelines. However, since they are still serving state sentences, these individuals are under more heavy and intense supervision and are only allowed to leave the facility for pre-approved employment or counseling not provided at the center. Parole violators have already served a complete sentence and though they are still supervised, they are given more freedoms than pre-released individuals.
It was recommended that these individuals be segregated to help prevent recidivism. Under Act 122, the law would phase out the state’s halfway houses for non-violent technical parole violators to be housed in reinvented secure community corrections centers or facilities, instead of prison. Caps would be placed on the length of incarceration for such individuals in these facilities to six months for first recommitment, nine months for second recommitment, or one-year for third or subsequent recommitment, subject to certain exceptions for poor behavior in prison. The Department of Corrections would also be allowed to enter into contracts with county jails to house technical parole violators who are recommitted as a cost saving mechanism.
Other changes that will take place under Act 122 to prevent non-violent people from serving long terms in our state corrections system are as follows:
- Expands the use, for non-violent offenders, of County and State Intermediate Punishment (CIP, SIP), State Motivational Boot Camps (BC), the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive (RRRI) Program and the Create a Safe Community Reentry Program.
- Allows for illegal immigrants convicted of nonviolent offenses to be paroled straight to immigration authorities for deportation, except for inmates who have been convicted of crimes of violence or crimes requiring registration under Megan’s Law. Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said this could save the state $1.5 million a year.
- Have the state Sentencing Commission establish resentencing guidelines for revocation of probation and intermediate punishment, parole guidelines, and recommitment ranges following revocation of parole.
- Alter the state’s current sanctioning process for probation violations in an attempt to offer more punishment options than imposing lengthy and costly prison terms.
- Allow the Board of Probation and Parole to award time credits for convicted parole violators for time spent at liberty on parole, except in cases involving violent crimes, Megan’s Law crimes or individuals who have returned to this country illegally after having been deported prior to serving their minimum sentence for a prior crime.
- County courts would be authorized to create a program to enforce probation violations by imposing swift, predictable, immediate and measured sanctions. The program would be modeled after the successful Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) initiative. Under HOPE, non-violent alcohol-and drug-addicted probationers are required to submit to random testing and those who fail receive swift punishment, which is usually a couple days in county jail and can ultimately be imprisoned for multiple failures. The swift and certain punishment has proven more effective in changing behavior than the current system, which can delay punishment for a probation violation for weeks or even months.
- Allow the Board of Probation and Parole to use advanced communications technology in parole hearings in order to increase the agency’s productivity and reduce delays.
- Prohibit inmates serving sentences for ungraded and third-degree misdemeanors from being sentenced to state prison, unless the Secretary of the Department of Corrections has consented to the commitment.
The Criminal Justice Reform Act is expected to yield between $250 million and $300 million in savings during the next five years. The Justice Reinvestment Working Group has suggested that $86 million of that savings be reinvested back into local communities for improved law enforcement, public safety efforts and evidence-based treatment for these individuals. Unfortunately, one of the most important components of the whole reform—the mechanism for returning money to local jurisdictions—still awaits action in the Legislature. House Bill 135 (HB 135) has become the vehicle to invest this money, but became a victim of last-minute politics surrounding the budget and is expected to be negotiated during the fall by the General Assembly.
Act 122 represents a bipartisan solution to Pennsylvania’s corrections system. The bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. Other than senior services and care, there is no other area that consumes more state funding each year than our corrections system. This is the first step to real reform. Act 122 will generate savings and put the money back into enforcement so that our law and county corrections officials will have the resources and tools necessary to get crime off our streets but also make sure that first time offenders and parole violators do not return to prison, rather become working citizens again who give back to the community.
Senator Wayne D. Fontana
42nd Senatorial District