The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 23, 2012

State could save millions on prison system, report says

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania could save tens of millions of dollars a year by keeping low-level offenders out of the prison system and instead reserving state prison beds for criminals convicted of the most serious crimes and serving longer terms, consultants said in a report released today.

The report by The Council of State Governments says decreasing reliance on expensive prison space would save about $350 million over five years, and that only a quarter of that amount would be needed to finance related changes that it recommends elsewhere in the system – including  shifting more prisoners nearing parole into intensive residential programs.

The report, the product of council researchers who spent months working with state officials to analyze detailed data about Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, was to be presented today to a 28-member working group that includes state officials, legislators, judges and prosecutors.

Authors of the report said the state’s correctional system faces serious challenges, including an inefficient parole process that keeps many inmates in prison even after they are approved for parole, and sentencing practices that result in thousands of short-term inmates cycling in and out of prison before they can benefit from programs that could make them less likely to commit future crimes.

The Corrections Department budget is nearing $2 billion while the prison population has increased to 51,000 – more than six times what it was in 1980 – and the recidivism rate is nearly 45 percent.

Among the recommendations in the report:

  • Require offenders convicted of low-level misdemeanors to be sentenced to non-prison sanctions, such as local incarceration or probation.
  • Streamline the state-run community-corrections centers –a $100 million network of intensive residential facilities with a capacity of 4,000 beds – to concentrate on people making the transition from or failing to comply with parole requirements. Offenders who have not been approved for parole should be prohibited at these facilities.
  • Use grants to reward counties that divert offenders serving short terms from prison and strengthen their probation and parole departments.
  • Increase the number of parole case interviews by 20 percent from the current 1,800 a month to nearly 2,200 by 2015.
  • Increasing grants to police departments for developing creative responses to law enforcement and for supporting statewide initiatives, such as new approaches to training, that benefit all departments.

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states participating in the council’s “justice reinvestment” initiative, designed to help states reduce prison spending while enhancing public safety. The research is financed by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States.

 

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