HARRISBURG — State prisons don't always work the way they're supposed to.
Sometimes, inmates return to a life behind bars after committing another crime, or after being busted on a parole violation, straining a crowded prison system.
In Pennsylvania, more than 51,000 inmates are housed in a network of 81 prisons, halfway houses and contracted community centers built for about 48,000, according to an April 2012 prison population report from the state Department of Corrections.
The cycle costs billions — state spending on corrections has increased by 1,700 percent since 1980, with the DOC allocated to receive nearly $1.87 billion next year. The figure is flat from the current fiscal year, but it represents the third-largest state department expenditure out of the $27.1 billion general fund after education and welfare, or .07 percent.
More offenders are being pushed into the system, creating a tipping point that, some say, can no longer be maintained.
A bipartisan group of public and private officials is saying it’s time for “Real Corrections Reform, Right Now,” the title of the group's proposal materials. The group includes DOC Secretary John Wetzel, who says the system no longer works.
“We’re out of money, and when you look at the other states, that’s when everyone kind of rolls up their sleeves on corrections reform,” said Wetzel, as the state budget for next year proposes a flat budget despite past-capacity populations.
Wetzel was one of several panelists who participated in discussion hosted Monday by the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market and taxpayer advocacy think tank. The group — composed of public and private officials — is calling for changes to the state’s prison system by looking at what works in other states.
It's a diverse bunch at the table:
There's Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a group known for its conservative family values.
There's former Philadelphia mayor the Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode Sr., who can tell the story of 10.7 million children nationwide who grow up with one or both parents incarcerated.
And there's former Gov. George Leader, a longtime advocate for prison reform since the uprising at the Camp Hill facility in the 1980s.
This is far from the first effort for correction reform.
State legislative efforts are pending, such as the working document of Senate Bill 100 that aims to re-define sentences and parole.
In 2008 and 2010, a series of bills passed to address prison reform, the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive being one example. That program incentivizes good behavior, minimizing sentence time for participation in crime-reduction programs and plans.
It will take more, say these reform-minded advocates. Wetzel said it’s like trying to turn around a cruise ship.
“We’re just looking at what we have, and what we have control over, and finding ways to do it better with what we have, if not less,” Wetzel said.
At the core of the reform is the goal of saving taxpayer dollars from a system labeled inefficient, and keeping former inmates from returning to that system.
Estimates from the Commonwealth Foundation presented at Monday's panel say it annually costs taxpayers $66 million to support about 1,900 inmates who qualify for parole but remain behind bars. Even when parole is granted, a three-month, pre-release costs about $9,000 per inmate.
About 45 percent of the state’s prison population is expected to return to prison within three years, according to Commonwealth figures.
Streamlining the release system is a step Wetzel and others support, cutting down the time it takes to get an inmate from a parole hearing to release.
Other policy changes suggested by the coalition include:
Instituting sanctions for parole violators rather than sending them back to prison;
Implementing a call-in parole model for drug offenders modeled after a program in Hawaii;
Using GPS monitoring as an alternative for nonviolent offenders.
Part of crafting a solution to the state’s prison population means looking at who goes to state prison in the first place.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director for the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said the state could benefit from a risk-assessment program — which looks at the likelihood of an offender committing a subsequent crime — before assigning a prison sentence.
That’s a new approach, he said, which has worked in other states, such as Virginia.There, risk assessment pinpoints high-risk cases — sorting out who should be in state prison, and who could benefit from an alternative option.
The National Center for State Courts estimates risk assessment diverted 25 percent of nonviolent offenders from the prison system into other sentences. The center, its website says, is an independent, court improvement nonprofit founded at the urging of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Examining mandatory minimum sentences is also up for discussion. Bergstrom uses the example of an offender sentenced to 90 days in state prison for driving under the influence.
“You might look at that and say, ‘Do we need state prison for a person like that?’” Bergstrom asked. “Or could a county jail or some kind of community rehab alternative be used for that person? You’re safeguarding the community, but not using the huge expense of state prison.”
Whatever those alternatives, not all involved in the justice system may welcome the change. Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, a membership association for state prosecutors, said the concept of nonviolent offenders serving time in state prison is "a fallacy."
Those who are up for a state prison sentence have "earned their way" there, either by committing a violent offense or repeatedly breaking the law, Long said.
But prosecutors, he said, welcome the opportunity to tailor sentences to individuals, such as through drug courts, veterans' courts and mental health courts.
“Anything that allows the court to take a deeper, closer look at the system, what’s going on with an individual and kind of individually address or tailor a solution for that person, we’re in favor of,” Long said on behalf of organization, “as long as we’re still involved in the process and are able to perform a role in safeguarding the safety of the community.”
As with any reform, any changes to the system will take time and money to implement. But Wetzel, among others, sees investing in reform as a way to help solve the long-term problem of an expensive, and admittedly ineffective, prison system.
“The first thing you see is some reduction in population, some reduction in spending, and as the reinvestment can start to happen up front you’ll start to see better outcomes in local law enforcement and less people ultimately coming to the Department of Corrections,” Wetzel said.
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