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Pa. corrections system spends $49 million keeping non-violent inmates beyond minimum

| Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 7:10 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's corrections system spends millions of taxpayer dollars sending nonviolent offenders to prison and does not do enough to help them meet conditions for early release, consultants found.

State taxpayers spent $49 million housing inmates beyond the minimum release dates of sentences for misdemeanors and minor felonies committed in 2010, said the review by The Council of State Government's Justice Center. The researchers are scheduled to present policy recommendations today to a state committee considering changes to the prison system.

"The whole package will include a substantial amount of money that can be saved, and at the same time, we can improve the system," said Tony Fabelo, the center's research director.

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed $27.14 billion budget counts on Department of Corrections savings achieved through legislation and agency changes, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. Corbett proposed flat funding of slightly less than $2 billion for the department.

The state's prison population climbed from 7,000 to 51,645 since 1980, in part because of mandatory-minimum sentences, longer prison terms and incarceration of less violent offenders, said Katrina Currie, a policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation.

Corrections statistics show 55.6 percent of the 51,645 inmates are violent offenders.

Corbett and other state leaders appointed the 32-member Pennsylvania Justice Reinvestment Workgroup last year to study how to save money on corrections. Based on the Justice Center's recommendations, the group could suggest legislative and regulatory changes.

The Justice Center is expected to suggest keeping some low-risk inmates in county jails or treatment programs, increasing money for drug and alcohol treatment and violence-prevention programs, and expanding the use of technology such as electronic monitoring.

"If you can get these nonviolent offenders into treatment quicker, so they could be paroled at their minimum sentence, there certainly could be some savings," said Linda Rosenberg, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, an agency under the governor's office.

The Justice Center found that prison programs designed to reward inmates for good behavior are backlogged.

The most common reason for denying inmates parole during the past two years was failure to participate in or complete institutional programming. But three-quarters of inmates with a minimum sentence of a year or less cannot complete the programs to get out by then.

"If you're going to have people with short minimum sentences going to prison, you've got to get them into programs quickly or they're just sitting there using up very expensive resources," said workgroup member Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, a legislative agency that issues punishment guidelines.

The House is considering a Senate prison reform bill passed in October that would keep some nonviolent offenders from going to state prison. The House could amend the bill to include the policy changes before lawmakers recess for summer.

"If we want to drop the number of inmates, then we've got to look at doing something different," said Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading, minority chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

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