As costs rise, Legislature urged to adopt prison reform
HARRISBURG -- With state prison costs continuing to skyrocket, Auditor General Jack Wagner on Thursday urged the Legislature to approve a Republican senator's bill that would make it easier to send non-violent offenders to alternative-sentencing programs.
Wagner, a Beechview Democrat, issued a special report outlining the 500 percent growth in Pennsylvania's prison population from 8,243 in 1980 to 51,487 in 2010. In 2009, Pennsylvania had the highest number of new inmates -- 2,122 -- of any state in the nation.
The cost per inmate nearly tripled from $11,477 in 1980 to $32,059 in 2009, Wagner said. The overall cost to taxpayers increased during the past 10 years from $1.17 billion to $1.6 billion, a 37 percent increase, he said.
As the state faces a $4 billion to $5 billion budget deficit, it's imperative that lawmakers consider reductions in Department of Corrections spending, which historically has been sacrosanct, Wagner said.
Wagner endorsed legislation by Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County. "The bill, Senate Bill 100, goes to the heart of the problem," Wagner said.
But Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, expressed concerns, saying the "safety of our communities" is paramount. Part of the issue is who would be classified as non-violent for release into communities.
"Yes, we have to reduce costs within our prison system. We've got to be more efficient in the Department of Corrections. But I would be hesitant to support something like that," Reese said.
The Criminal Justice Reform Act by Greenleaf allows the state to more quickly move non-violent offenders with short sentences to community corrections centers such as halfway houses. More non-violent offenders would be eligible for the centers and the state's boot camp.
It also establishes a community re-entry program that would provide full continuation of services through incarceration and release. The bill also calls for a county probation program similar to Hawaii's for "swift, immediate and predictable sanctions" for probation violators. It would invest $50 million in the criminal justice, Greenleaf's counsel Gregg Warner said.
The state plans to spend about $860 million for four new correctional institutes and four new housing centers, and the 4,000 additional beds are expected to be filled as soon as construction is completed, Wagner said.
Wagner suggested a moratorium on new construction after these are built.
Alternative sentencing could save $50 million in the 2011-12 budget and $350 million over four years, Wagner said.
"Anytime you have the auditor general support a bill, it's very helpful," Warner said. "I'm sure Senator Greenleaf appreciates the endorsement."
Wagner said Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican, is better equipped than any other governor over the past 30 years to address corrections issues as a former state attorney general, former U.S. attorney and one-time head of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Warner said Greenleaf plans to negotiate with the Corbett administration before scheduling a hearing on the bill.
New prisons and a batch of housing units planned or under construction would each house about 2,000 inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections. The state plans to spend about $860 million as follows:
- On the grounds of State Correctional Institute Rockview, Centre County -- SCI Benner, $176 million
- Two on the grounds of SCI Graterford, Montgomery County -- $200 million each
- In Fayette County, site to be determined -- estimated cost $200 million
Modular and Housing Unit Construction Projects
- Cambridge Springs, Crawford County (a female prison) -- 150-bed modular housing unit, 230-bed medium-security housing unit, $17.8 million
- Coal Township, Northumberland County -- 230-bed medium-security housing unit, $15.5 million
- Forest, Forest County -- 128-bed maximum-security housing unit, $17.5 million
- Greensburg, Westmoreland County -- 150-bed modular housing unit, $2.5 million
- Houtzdale, Clearfield County -- 150-bed modular housing unit, $2.5 million
- Laurel Highlands, Somerset County -- 150-bed modular housing unit, $2.5 million
- Mahanoy, Schuylkill County -- 150-bed modular housing unit, $2.5 million
- Pine Grove, Indiana County -- 150-bed modular housing unit, $2.5 million; 230-bed medium-security housing unit, $15.5 million
- Rockview, Centre County -- two 150-bed modular housing units, $2.5 million each