PA corrections secretary: Inefficencies, drug laws costing taxpayers
Wetzel: That’s inexcusable in these budget times
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — State Secretary of Corrections says inefficiencies within the state prison system’s is forcing taxpayers to pay for keeping about 1,900 inmates per year locked up when they otherwise would qualify for parole.
“That’s inexcusable in these budget times when there is no money and there is not going to be an increase in taxes,” Wetzel said Monday. “If we have inefficiencies that lead to costs, we cannot tolerate that.”
Wetzel said the prison system is set up to deal with long-term and dangerous offenders, but now a third of the inmates in the system — about 3,500 every year — come into state prison with less than a year to serve.
Most are drug offenders, he said.
In 1980, the state prisons housed 80 percent violent offenders and 20 percent non-violent offenders. By 2010, violent offenders comprised 47 percent of the population, while non-violent offenders increased to 39 percent, according to department statistics.
For an average short-term offender, who is sentenced to between six months and three years, the biggest complication is getting through the parole system. Even for those who qualify for immediate parole at the end of their minimum sentence, backlogs in the system require an average of 200 extra days in prison, Wetzel said.
Taxpayers pay about $32,000 per inmate per year to support the prison system, so the backlog of 1,900 extra inmates each year that could be released adds more than $60 million to the department's costs.
The Department of Corrections is the third largest piece of the state budget after education and welfare, and is the fastest growing. Its budget is up 1,700 percent since 1980, while the prison population has jumped 500 percent during the same period.
The state’s parole board can handle 1,800 hearings per month, but there is demand for about 600 more, or more than 2,400 hearings per month.
“We have more people needing hearings than get hearings, so we have people who aren’t getting out simply because we don’t have the capacity as a system,” Wetzel said.
To streamline the process, the state will begin locating all short-term inmates in three facilities instead of spreading them across the 26 state prisons.
Wetzel said legislative changes will be needed as well, including restructuring how the state sentences convicts.
In October, the state Senate unanimously approved a bill to give more inmates access to a variety of state and county-level programs designed to handle short-term offenders and drug offenders with the goal of reducing their impact of the state prison population.
The bill is awaiting action in the state House and is estimated to save about $1.8 million annually from the Department of Corrections budget.