Pennsylvania Passes Prison Reform
(08/09/2012)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 100 into law on July 9, 2012, after unanimous approval in both chambers of the legislature. The governor is hoping the bill will back up his self-characterization as a prison reformer, as sources say the bill could save hundreds of millions of dollars over a five-year period. His opponents argue that Corbett’s budget still includes $685 million to construct more than 5,000 new prison beds.

As with most political realities, the bill probably won’t fully please anyone and likely won’t give Corbett solid footing in either the hard on crime or prison reform camps. The bill expands alternative sentencing programs, lowers the incidence of parolees returning to prison because of small technical violations of their parole, and diverts some low-level offenders to jail instead of prison. On the flip side, the bill eliminates early release to halfway houses for parolees who are within a year of serving their maximum sentences.

Most people seem to agree that the changes will lead to a smaller prison population; the argument comes down to whether or not voters believe that is a good thing, and whether the new measures went too far or not far enough. One thing both sides can agree on is that the change will save money, something many people can be envious of in a time where our country finds itself asking not if it will have to cut funding to law enforcement, but how much it will have to sacrifice.

Savings from the changes will be put back into the law enforcement system, funding a risk-based sentencing tool to help judges make decisions in a country where shorter sentences will be dictated by the reality of state budgets, regardless of the public’s wishes. John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of the Department of Corrections, didn’t seem concerned about the change, as he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, many states that altered their parole rules to send less people back to prison have experienced a decrease in recidivism and crime rates. It would have seemed strange to hear a corrections representative mention such a statistic in the past, but critics will argue that the sample size for those stats is relatively small, with many prison population reduction programs still in their relative infancy.

The bill didn’t change anything when it comes to Pennsylvania’s handling of elderly prisoners. As Philadelphia’s Inquirer points out, the amount of prisoners over the age of 50 has grown from 370 in the state in 1980 to more than 8,000 this year.

Detractors also complain that, even though parole violations won’t be as likely to send people back to prison, the new rules will simply ship them to jail instead, pushing the financial burden to the local level. The move practically mirrors the “realignment” fix being implemented in California, where state leaders have passed more prisoners back to the local level of law enforcement.

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