2008-09-24 / Police Reports

Bill Addressing Crowded Prisons Gets Pa. Senate OK

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Legislation designed to move thousands of nonviolent criminals out of state prisons more quickly and rein in booming correctional costs is nearing final approval in the Capitol.

The bill, regarded as the biggest change to the state's criminal justice system in many years, received Senate approval Wednesday, 48-2, after the chamber made minor changes to it.

The key provisions would allow nonviolent drug offenders currently in prison to be resentenced to enter an existing addiction treatment program, while nonviolent offenders who behave well and complete certain programs can trim time from their sentences and be paroled more quickly.

The House, which has approved previous versions of the bill in recent months, is expected to give final approval to the bill next week.

Gov. Ed Rendell has pressed for the changes and a Corrections Department spokeswoman said officials there support the bill.

The hope is that, with rehabilitation, fewer convicts will return to crime after they are released from prison, and that the state can slow the growth of a state prison population that has already quadrupled in the past quarter century to 46,800.

Pennsylvania has no early-release program that gives nonviolent offenders an incentive to turn their lives around and stay crime-free, despite evidence from New York and other states that such policies can work well, the legislation's proponents say.

"Are we surprised they come back (to prison)?'' said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. "They have no alternatives and they have addictions, and we release them that way.''

Mandatory sentencing laws passed in the 1990s and designed to punish violent criminals are to blame for the state's booming prison population because they inadvertently sent nonviolent offenders away for long sentences, as well, said Greenleaf, a former county prosecutor who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

"They were important bills and they dealt with violent offenders, but it's having a broader effect than we anticipated and it's important that we step forward and acknowledge that,'' Greenleaf said.

The bill also would divert to the state prison system hundreds of the approximately 30,000 convicts who under current law serve their sentences in county jails, lifting a financial burden on counties.

In the next three years, the state plans to build three new prisons in addition to the 27 already operating at a cost of more than $500 million.

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