Calculating by Corrections

Posted by By at 31 October, at 12 : 07 PM Print

Pennsylvania budgets under the Rendell administration have been a thrill a minute.

There’s always been the issue of whether they will get passed on time. Then there’s the issue of revenue shortfalls in recent years, and the amount of those shortfalls.

Then there are the budget cuts that legislators – particularly Republicans – want to make, and the increases that Rendell, a Democrat, wants – both in taxes and spending.

Now legislators are staring at a projected $5 billion budget gap for 2011-12. The gubernatorial candidates are pledging budget cuts and no tax increases.

The one area that seems immune from all this discourse is the state’s corrections system. Corrections has not experienced cuts and there appears to be little public concern about that situation.

Right now, the state legislature is working to curtail the burgeoning costs and rising prison population – an issue that has forced the state to send more than 2,000 prisoners to Michigan and Virginia at an expense of $62 per prisoner per day, according to corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton).

Ironically, both Michigan and Virginia have taken steps to reduce prisoner population, freeing up space where they can now handle Pennsylvania’s excess capacity.

Some people wonder why Pennsylvania appears to be lagging other states on this issue. Jean Bickmire is the legislative director of Justice and Mercy Inc., a nonprofit, faith-based organization located in the conservative Strasburg area of Lancaster County.

In her position, she tries to educate public officials about best practices  used to trim prison population and costs. She said the reception to her message has improved in recent years. Why? “Money,” she said. “It all comes down to money, like everything else.”

She explained, “When I first started, I got the impression that most people felt that only bleeding hearts and people that were family members or had some vested interest were interested in” prison issues, she said.

“I think now, with the state the economy is in and the fact that so many people now are impacted by it, it is causing a shift.”

She noted her organization and similar ones have been warning state legislators for years about the impending crisis in the state corrections system.

So has Jeffrey Beard, the recently retired secretary for the Department of Corrections who held his job through both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The figures are pretty basic – Beard told the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission back in May:  The state had 8,243 inmates in 1980. It now has more than  51,000.                 -    There were nine prison facilities with 1,563 correctional officers in 1980. Now there are 27 facilities and more than 9,400 correctional officers.

Four more prisons, at an anticipated cost of $200 million apiece, are in the works. One is under construction with a budget of $176 million and a projected completion date in 2012.

Work on two others to replace the current Graterford facility is delayed due to a recent court ruling, and a site for a new prison in Fayette County is still under consideration. -   The corrections budget was $94 million in 1980, and now it stands at $1.7 billion.

“What are we getting for our dollars?’ Bickmire asked.

Earlier this year, the state Senate approved three bills sponsored by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bills centered on different issues, but they were all designed to address rising prison costs. Components of the bills, SB 1145, SB 1161 and SB 1275, received the endorsement of the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission when it released its report in June.

The bills were referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where concerns   were aired about pre-release community centers, a key component in SB 1161 that allows for alternative placement for defendants who have short minimum sentences.

Typically, those with short minimums are less serious offenders and could benefit from alternative settings, while receiving job training, education classes or treatment for addictions.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, who is the president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said pre-release centers are not “necessarily the best place” for some defendants to go.

He said there is a public safety concern. The House Judiciary Committee recently approved an amended version of SB 1161. The amended version essentially gutted many aspects of SB 1161 and incorporated aspects of the two other Senate bills on risk assessments and minor parole violations.

“It’s a start,” said, Marsico after the committee vote, but it’s clear others were not so enthused.

“It’s not a total destroying of the bill,” said Bickmire. “It’s better than nothing.”

Bickmire is disappointed that the bill eliminated language on short-term minimum offenders who many believe are better served in an alternative setting.

“We’re going to continue to work on it,” she said, “and try to figure out our next strategy.”

Dave Tyler, executive director of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hopes early next year that the committee can again discuss the short minimum issue and get a “better explanation” of the issue.

“In an election year, it was tough to do,” he said. The growth in the state’s prison population is rising because of the relatively minor offender  – a person with a drug possession or driving under the influence charge.

In his May testimony before the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission, then-secretary Beard noted that little more than 2 percent of prison growth in the past decade was attributable to violent crimes, while 55 percent of the growth was due to less serious offenses.

“Adding to the phenomenal growth is the fact that more 3,500 of the inmates we receive each year have less than a year to serve on their minimum sentence,” he testified.

“The average time to {a} minimum for these inmates is eight months, which does not give us time to enter these inmates into programming prior to their parole review.

As a result, they serve an average of 143 percent of their minimum sentence, and they take up considerable resources in our overburdened prison system.” Beard also noted in his testimony that technical parole violators – infractions such as curfew violations – accounted for approximately 3,000 inmates returned to state prison in 2008.

Before the House revised SB 1161, the bill focused on inmates who were within 18 months of serving their minimum sentence when they are remanded to the supervision of the department of corrections.

Under those circumstances, those inmates could go to a prerelease center, instead of a state prison. The pre-release centers, many of them unsecured facilities, raised alarms during hearings before the House committee.

“They got a little nervous,” Tyler said. Tyler said he was asked by the chairman, Democratic state Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, to strip out references to short minimum terms; saying other aspects of the three Greenleaf bills are less contentious.

“There’s lot of good things in this bill,” said Tyler about the amended version. He noted a key component of the amended bill is the use of technical parole centers that would steer some parole violators away from a return trip to state prison.

The parole offenses would be for things such as curfew violations or late payment of fees, not the commission of another crime. He also said the proposed legislation provides $2.3 million in funding to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which will be responsible for developing risk assessment standards that might allow some defendants to be placed in alternative settings.

Asked how much the amended legislation will save in costs, Tyler responded, “Not as much as we had hoped.”

The gubernatorial candidates, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato, have been relatively quiet on the pending corrections bills.

Bickmire said Corbett, the current state attorney general, carries a “tough on crime” image, but he indicated to her and others that he would “take a hard look” on the issue of rising corrections costs. “It remains to be seen,” she observed.

Onorato, she said, is an “unknown.” She noted that he’s the executive in Allegheny County, which she said is “one of the best ones” regarding drug and alcohol courts, working with families of inmates, and mental health courts.

Corbett’s campaign staff said the attorney general is aware of the “skyrocketing” correction costs that are “unsustainable.”

Anthony Pugliese, policy coordinator for the campaign, said Corbett has proposed performance-based budgeting for all state departments, and he believes this can help control rising costs within the corrections system.

He said the campaign has been receiving information from corrections employees about waste that can be eliminated within the department. He also said Corbett supports literacy and GED programs to help stop the “revolving door that has become our corrections system.”

”Education is the key to everything,” Pugliese said. Without it, prisoners, once released, simply “resort back to what they have done in the past.”

Onorato’s position statement on safe communities on his Web site does not focus on corrections bills pending in the legislature, but it does encourage expanding pre-kindergarten, dropout prevention and other measures to help prevent the formation of criminal behavior. (See his position statement)

“The ultimate goal,” Bickmire said, “is to do what’s right for the people of Pennsylvania,” but she conceded that this can be difficult because prison issues strike an emotional chord with the public.

“I believe that people should do the right things,” she said. “But I think we need to lend opportunities. The more money we put into corrections, the less we’re going to put into economic development, education, stimulus, helping senior citizens, all that good stuff – and child care – that makes people have the opportunities they need to be able to succeed.”

Bickmire noted that current trends project continued prison population increases, to the point where Pennsylvania will need to keep constructing prisons even after the planned facilities open.

Last year, she said, Pennsylvania had the highest prison population growth rate in the country.

Meanwhile, she noted, states such as Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Texas have taken action to control rising prison population costs and have ended up closing some prisons.

“You can’t put everybody in prison,” she said.

“The state prisons were built for violent or hardened criminals, not for these low-level people that they’re sending there by the truckloads that could be better served in other places.”

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