2011-03-03 / Local & State

Sentencing Changes Cited As Pa. Prison Numbers Dip

By Mark Scolforo
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent decision to scrap plans for a $200 million prison in the state’s southwestern corner disappointed local civic leaders who were counting on the project to put hundreds of people to work and pour cash into the region’s economy.

The reason for the sudden change of course, said acting Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, was that the prison was simply unnecessary because the inmate population has leveled off after a long period of growth.

There is definitely something unusual going on in Pennsylvania’s inmate population, which stood at 51,273 at the end of last month.

The numbers even fell by nearly 200 inmates from a year ago, although the population remains more than 5,000 higher than in January 2008.

Those who follow Pennsylvania prison population trends say one factor may be that the state is experiencing a return to normal release rates after the turmoil caused by a temporary parole moratorium that Gov. Ed Rendell imposed in the wake of a Philadelphia police officer’s slaying three years ago.

Another element cited is the effect of a 2008 package of sentencing changes that gave nonviolent offenders – many of them convicted of drug offenses – shorter prison terms with certain conditions, such as addiction treatment or other therapeutic programs. The Corrections Department credits that for cutting the prison population by 650 so far.

Corbett, a Republican, spoke out against the 2008 changes, which passed in the midst of his re-election campaign for state attorney general, partly because they altered the state’struth-in-sentencing policy.

The prison system also just completed a report on the effects of the 2004 “intermediate punishment’’ program showing that 933 people had completed it as of September, saving taxpayers an estimated $32 million.

“That allows us to free up the more expensive cell space for the really violent offenders who need to be locked up,’’ said department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton.

It also is helping the state to plan to reclaim, later this year, 1,150 inmates currently farmed out to the Michigan prison system. There are currently no such plans to bring back the 1,005 Pennsylvania inmates now held in Virginia prisons.

Pennsylvania Prison Society director William DiMascio said the state’s practices regarding former inmates who violate their parole terms have been changing in ways that may help hold down the prison population. He said he doesn’t believe exinmates are being sent back just for missing an appointment or for one failed drug test, as they were before.

“They’re more tolerant of those minor infractions, and they don’t send them back until they’ve really built up,’’ DiMascio said.

The cancellation of the Fayette County prison hardly means that Pennsylvania is getting out of the prison building business.

Ground was broken in August for a $176 million, 2,000- inmate facility next to the existing SCI-Rockview outside State College. There are still plans to build a pair of prisons with 4,000 total beds on the property of SCI-Graterford in the Philadelphia suburbs for $400 million.

And modular or regular housing units are at various stages of construction at several other existing prisons.

For some reason, the number of convictions that led to sentences, a kind of canary in the inmate population coal mine, dropped in 2009 after a decade or more of steady increases, said Mark Bergstrom with the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission.

The full 2010 numbers won’t be out for another month or so, but they appear to be back at 2008 levels, which could in turn push prison numbers back up.

Another reason to think that the population plateau could be short-lived is that, by November, county judges will have far less discretion to allow criminals sentenced to a maximum of more than two years to serve their time in county lock-ups.

“That’s going to jump the numbers back up again,’’ said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, RMontgomery, a leader on criminal justice issues in the Legislature.

Greenleaf is pushing for legislation to change how the Corrections Department handles inmates with the very shortest minimum sentences.

“They were supposed to be out at a certain date, and now we’re holding them for a year afterward because of the red tape,’’ he said. “They’re not violent offenders, so we just threw all that money away.’’

Greenleaf hopes that proposal and other changes will do what may seem counterintuitive – improve public safety by reducing the number of inmates.

There is a lot of money at stake. Pennsylvania’s prison system employs 16,000 people and has a $1.7 billion budget.

“Once we get this right, it’ll be a fair, just system, with less recidivism and less expensive,’’ Greenleaf said. “That’s what other states have now, so we’re not reinventing the wheel.’’

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