Number of inmates in Pa. prisons increases by 40 percent in nine years

Debra Erdley
| Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009

Pennsylvania's prison population explosion is forcing officials to look hundreds of miles away for solutions.

While the general population stagnated over the past nine years, Pennsylvania's prison population swelled by nearly 40 percent, prompting state officials to take an old prison out of mothballs, haul modular units into prison yards across the state, farm inmates out to county jails and develop plans for four new prisons.

Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Beard has talked informally with Michigan Corrections Director Patricia Caruso about sending Pennsylvania's wrongdoers to Michigan, which has closed facilities.

"It's an option," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

For the time being, Beard is stuck trying to house nearly 51,000 inmates in a system designed to house 43,000.

Although the Legislature quietly allocated funds for the four prisons at a cost of $200 million each in last year's capital budget, there's been little discussion of the prison population explosion, what caused it, or the spike in the state's corrections budget, which increased by 50 percent — from $1.2 billion to an estimated $1.8 billion — since the beginning of the decade.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Alfred Blumstein, a nationally recognized expert on crime, attributes much of it to the politics of crime. Beginning in the 1970s, he said, politicians learned when they made a move to "get tough on crime," the public would cheer.

"The public is still relatively unsophisticated about incarceration. People tend to see it as the simplistic way to solve all the problems of things going on that you don't like. But in some cases it can be counterproductive," said Blumstein, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

He said get-tough sentencing policies do little to affect arrest rates.

Recent spikes in prison spending caught the attention of lawmakers, such as Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, who wrote the state's mandatory drug sentencing laws in the 1990s.

"We're almost spending more on prisons than higher education. Pretty soon we will be," he said.

A check of last year's budget revealed that happened when Pennsylvania taxpayers anted up $1.66 billion for the state prisons, compared to $1.59 billion for higher education, or about $33,000 per prisoner per year, compared to $4,000 per college student per year.

Greenleaf has chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly two decades. He said the policies he and his colleagues championed — mandatory minimum sentences, limits on parole, more prison time for drug and nonviolent offenders — largely are responsible for a prison population spike with no accompanying decline in crime.

Indeed, nonviolent offenders and mentally ill inmates make up about half of the state's prison population, Greenleaf said.

Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Hollidaysburg, said the costs of such policies are draining public resources at an alarming rate.

"Mandatory sentences are not working. In New York, they've re-thought that, and they're losing 1,000 prisoners a year.

"The real key is getting nonviolent inmates out of cells. We can do a lot with people, keeping them under house arrest in very punitive, very restrictive conditions. And then we can have them pay us for supervision instead of us paying," Eichelberger said.

Officials in Michigan have relied on an aggressive, closely monitored, well-financed parole program with community input to reduce the prison population. The program, begun several years ago, has contributed to the excess of prison space, said Russ Marlan of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"Our parole rate has gone up, our recidivism rate has gone down, and the state police aren't making as many arrests," Marlan said.

In Pennsylvania, Beard told lawmakers he expects the prison population will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

Blumstein, who studies incarceration trends across the nation, said it won't be easy to reverse that trend.

He points to recent incidents, including Gov. Ed Rendell's 2008 moratorium on parole after a parolee killed a Philadelphia police officer and the public outcry when a study commission recommended paroling elderly and mentally ill inmates.

"The politics of it are major," Blumstein said.

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