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$77M more sought for Pa. prisons; mental health training a major focus

| Sunday, April 6, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

Despite the slowest prison population growth in more than three decades, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is seeking a record budget appropriation of just more than $2 billion for 2014-15.

The prison population rose by 191 inmates from January 2011 through December 2013, the department said, the smallest increase since 1971. Corrections is asking for an additional $77 million.

Salaries and benefit increases for more than 15,250 employees would consume most of that increase. But department officials report they haven't been as successful as they'd hoped in curbing the prison population, and nearly one-fourth of inmates need mental health treatment, requiring programs and staff training.

“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.

A program that began in 2012 was expected to save the department $139 million over five years by keeping nonviolent offenders and parole violators out of state prison. But the number of parole violators went up 1,063, or 15 percent, in 2013, the department said. Court admissions into the prison system were up 7 percent.

“We're kind of disappointed on the admissions,” said Bret Bucklen, director of planning, research and statistics for Corrections. “There are more people coming in our front door than we thought.”

Judges are using diversionary court programs, such as those for drug use, drunken driving, mental health and veterans, instead of imposing mandatory minimum sentences, Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey Manning said. That has helped to curb the prison growth, he said.

Allegheny County had just under 700 defendants in diversionary programs at the end of 2013, court officials said.

“The courts don't think (mandatory sentences are) effective, and they're clogging up the prison system with persons who have drug problems,” Manning said.

He said recidivism in the county drug court ranges from 3 percent to 5 percent and is just 1 percent in drunken-driving court; prison recidivism can reach 60 to 70 percent. Repeat offenders usually serve lengthier sentences.

“For every $1 you spend on treatment, you save $6 on incarceration,” said Manning, citing national statistics. “When it's substance abuse, horrific punishment is never going to stop it.”

Last year ended with about 22 percent of more than 51,000 inmates classified with mental health problems.

Because of that, the state wants to spend $20 million on medical care and mental health programs. Wetzel is asking for 101 new positions at secure residential treatment units within seven state prisons. By the end of 2014, all prison staff will receive training to recognize mental health problems.

“After much reflection and a closer examination of practices in our correctional facilities, we've implemented fundamental, systemwide changes in how we provide psychological and psychiatric services to state inmates,” Wetzel said.

The state had estimated it would have to build a prison every 18 months to keep up with earlier population growth. Now, Bucklen said, corrections officials hope it won't have to add to its 25 state prisons for 30 years. The state uses 13 community corrections centers and 44 contracted facilities for less serious offenders.

“There will continue to be cost-growth,” said Jay Pagni, spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, but he said Corrections works with the budget office “to ensure they can manage that cost-growth in a very effective and prudent way.”

Bill Vidonic is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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