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Pennsylvania corrections system cuts considered

Faced with soaring prison costs in a state where both violent and property crime rates are declining, Gov. Tom Corbett has tasked a panel of judicial, legislative and criminal justice officials to come up with recommendations on how to reduce spending on and improve the corrections system.

Corbett, a former state and federal prosecutor, applied for a grant to study the issue shortly after he was elected. Last summer, in an effort that mirrored studies conducted in 15 states, analysts from The Council of State Governments Justice Center began collecting data from Pennsylvania's courts and corrections systems.

On Thursday, they delivered their preliminary findings to the panel, dubbed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Researchers found that the number of people admitted to state prisons increased by 46 percent over the last decade, even as violent crime and property crime rates declined by 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Department of Corrections spending ballooned from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion during the same period.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Alfred Blumstein, a nationally recognized expert on crime, said Pennsylvania, like many other states facing budgetary constraints, is taking a hard look at corrections spending.

"It's an issue in which the left and the right in this highly polarized world are at least ready to talk about," Blumstein said. "The right is concerned about the fiscal issues and the left about the excessive punitiveness of the system.

"They're looking to find some common ground, and that's encouraging."

John Whetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the Justice Reinvestment Initiative will take a top-to-bottom look at the courts and corrections systems to determine whether they could make better decisions about sentencing, treatment, parole and "putting people where they need to be based on the risk."

Doing a better job could enhance public safety, lead to reductions in recidivism and ultimately contain costs, he predicts.

"This will be based on data-driven decisions across the criminal justice continuum," Whetzel said. Other states are reaping the benefits of such studies, he said.

Marc Pelka, a senior analyst with The Council of State Governments Justice Center, said Texas was one of the early success stories.

"They were on the verge of spending $540 million on new prisons in 2007. Thanks to this process, they realized the real cause of their problem was the lack of people to supervise people on community probation," Pelka said.

"Then they put those dollars into providing sentencing and treatment options in the community. Last year Texas announced it would be closing its Sugarland prison."

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