HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has requested more than $2 billion in funding for FY 2014-2015, up $77 million from Governor Tom Corbett’s last budget. The vast majority of the funds requested would be dedicated to salaries and benefit increases for the system’s more than 15,000 employees.
The multi-million dollar request comes even as Pennsylvania is experiencing its slowest prison population growth in roughly 30 years. According to Trib Live, the state’s prison numbers rose by just 191 inmates between January 2011 and December 2013, which marked the system’s smallest increase in more than 40 years. Despite these promising figures, the state has not met other goals to further taper the prison population and parole violations. Additionally more inmates are in need of mental health and other services, further adding to system-wide expenses.
Throughout his first term Governor Tom Corbett has pushed to keep the state’s prison population low through a combination of prison reform legislation, expanded parole supervision and various improvements to operational efficiency. In 2012 Pennsylvania lawmakers approved the Justice Reinvestment prison reform package, which included several measures aimed at keeping lower-level criminals out of prison. By diverting non-violent offenders and those who had violated their parole into court programs, instead of imposing mandatory minimum sentences, the Department of Corrections expected to save nearly $140 million over five years.
Though projections also estimated the state’s prison population would decline by roughly 1,000 inmates in 2013, it unexpectedly rose. According to state statistics the number of inmates in Pennsylvania prisons totaled 49,789 by December 2013. The state’s parole violation percentage also increased by 15 percent.
According to Penn Live, this increase can largely be attributed to the fact that county judges simply sentenced more people to prison in 2013 than expected. In total, commitments rose by roughly 7 percent from 2012 figures.
However, according to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who spoke to the House Appropriations Committee about the population issue in February, lawmakers have passed nearly two dozen bills since 2012 that will either extend sentences or create new offenses, diminishing the intended impact of the initial Justice Reinvestment package.
“We are in the midst of making a monumental philosophy shift in our corrections system, from one of simply warehousing inmates to one that focuses on performance outcomes,” Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said during House budget hearings in February. Wetzel is also requesting $20 million to add roughly 100 positions across seven state prisons, and increase both medical and mental health care programs.