by Jeff Coleman and Eric J. Epstein
An old and misguided political adage claimed that Democrats built schools and Republicans built prisons. It’s simply not true, and the reality is much more complex.
It would be far more accurate to say that society creates conditions for failing schools and thriving prisons, while taxpayers underwrite abysmal results. Education funding remains a radioactive public policy issue, but politicians remain silent and disconnected from the perennial “corrections” hemorrhage in the state budget.
Consider a 2010 report by then Secretary of Corrections, Jeffrey Beard, who reported prison numbers that should have ignited a statewide political debate:
• Pennsylvania had 8,243 inmates in 1980, but by 2010 the number soared to some 51,000. The prison population dipped by 850 in 2015 and 756 in 2014 and crested at 49,914 — the lowest level since 2009.
• The Corrections budget was $94 million in 1980, but the proposed overall departmental budget for this fiscal 2016-17 is projected to grow by $192 million, or 7.9% increase to $2.4 billion.
• According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, prison overtime costs rose from $78.3 million in 2013 to $87 million in 2014, and are now more than $100 million or $6 million more to run the entire correction system in 1980.
Before 2010, Pennsylvania was adding a new prison every year and a half at a cost of approximately $250 million to build and $70 a year to operate.
The investment is astounding, and the return abysmal.
While no one argues that criminals should be isolated, there are some who should never be released and reintegrated into communities. Prisons perform the critical function of protecting neighborhoods from the most dangerous criminals.
Pennsylvania’s prison population growth spurt was largely the result of longer sentences and the rise in the 1980’s and 90’s of mandatory minimum sentences.
In testimony before the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission, Beard said that “…little more than two 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.” He added, “…the phenomenal growth is the fact that more than 3,500 of the inmates we receive each year have less than a year to serve on their minimum sentence.”
Statistically, one-third of state prison admissions have a year or less remaining on their sentence. Historically, these prisoners would have completed their sentence at a county jail. Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that allows misdemeanor-only offenders to serve time in a state prison.
It’s time to reconsider Pennsylvania’s Corrections strategy. Many states, including our neighbors, offer some instructive solutions.
New Jersey, New York, Virginia and even Texas have taken steps to reduce prison overcrowding, and we should follow suit. Among the proactive measures Pennsylvania’s next Governor should consider: filtering parole violations for late payment on fees and curfew violations; utilization of alternative settings and faith based transitional living programs for short-term offenders; and, cyber and electronic monitoring. Technology allows Pennsylvania to track and monitor prisoners 24/7 – prisons without walls.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel got it right when he said, “Finally, offenders are getting the treatment they need at a more-appropriate level of the criminal justice system. This ensures appropriate treatment and saves the expensive state prison space for the more violent offenders – those that truly should be separated from society.”
At a cost of over $40,000 per year, per prisoner, we can’t afford to put everybody in jail. It’s time to strike a balance between keeping people safe and making them broke.
Beyond budget crunching, the human cost of aggressive incarceration – more prisoners and longer sentences – is truly incalculable.
Jeff Coleman is a former Republican member of the PA House of Representatives and principal of Churchill Strategies – a branding and communications firm in Harrisburg. Eric Epstein is a consumer advocate and good government watchdog who founded Rock the Capital after the infamous pay raise in July 2005.