PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Pennsylvania needs to stop building new prisons, lower its inmate population by using alternative sentencing options for nonviolent offenders and reverse a trend that has tripled its per-inmate spending over the past three decades, according to Auditor General Jack Wagner.
“We need to draw a line in the sand going forward regarding building new prisons,” hesaid.
Wagner, a Democrat and former state senator from Pittsburgh, was joined by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, R-Montgomery, and Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in making his statement.
“The statistics are overwhelming and you have to look at them to appreciate the problem,” Wagnersaid.
Pennsylvania’s inmate population grew from about 8,200 in 1980 to about 51,500 last year while spending per inmate over the same period has increased from $11,400 to more than $32,000.
Wagner is targeting roughly 19,000 inmates, or 39 percent, who are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. He wants that number halved through an overhaul of sentencing practices and other changes in a bill Greenleaf currently has before the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs.
A former Montgomery County prosecutor, Greenleaf said other states cited in Wagner’s report, such as California, Michigan, New York, Maryland and Texas, have reduced inmate populations and cut costs by renovating existing prisons instead of building new ones, scaling back mandatory sentences, and developing prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders.
Greenleaf’s legislation would reduce the time some nonviolent offenders spend in the state system, encourage nonprofits and faith-based rehabilitation programs, and reform parole rules so people are not imprisoned for lesserviolations.
Spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said the Department of Corrections is already “working very diligently on a lot of things he is proposing.” The state is expanding an intermediate punishment program and a program that gives inmates who are at low risk for recidivism reduced sentences for participating in treatment and behavioralprograms.
Wagner believes Greenleaf’s proposals could save $50 million this fiscal year, and $100 million each of the next three years and hundreds of millions more if new prisons are not built.
States that have cut back on their “tough on crime” sentencing laws have seen a drop in violent crime, Greenleaf said.
“Counterintuitive? Yes. But that’s what’s happening,” hesaid.
Gov. Tom Corbett has already scrapped plans for a $200 million, 2,000-bed prison in Fayette County, but construction is under way on a $176 million, 2,000-inmate facility next to the Rockview state prison in Centre County. The DOC still plans to build two more prisons outside Philadelphia to house 4,000 inmates at a cost of $400million.
Wagner said he is not necessarily calling for a moratorium on newprisons. Rather, one or two new prisons may be necessary to replace older institutions, or to expand certain kinds of specialized treatment or rehabilitation, such as the state prison in Chester, a tobacco-free facility that treats inmates with substance-abuseproblems.
Wagner added that Greenleaf’s proposed changes could reduce the state’s inmate population so that Pennsylvania will have room to house inmates from other states, instead of paying $250 million over five years to house 2,000 inmates in Virginia and Michigan prisons.