Mandatory sentences filling jails

Since mandatory sentences started becoming law in the early 1980s, Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate has kept going up, up, up.

The statewide incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent since 1982, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.

At the end of 2012, however, the state experienced a 454-person decrease in the number of inmates at correctional institutions – the largest one-year drop since 1971 and only the third time in the past 40 years that the system has experienced an annual decrease, according to state Department of Corrections officials.

The pressure put on the state budget by full prisons up until last year caused the Legislature to pass a “justice reinvestment” package that is intended to send money saved at the state prison level to counties for preventive programs such as drug and alcohol treatment and increased probation tools.

However, only 25 percent of the anticipated $142 million to be saved over the next five years is scheduled to be sent to local budgets after 2016.

Savings at the state level are being realized because of a flattening inmate population in correctional institutions and a lower repeat offender rate, according to state corrections officials.

Justice reinvestment plans also call for lower-risk inmates to be sent back to county prisons and community-based alternative treatment programs.

The state also has started asking counties to take back some prisoners before their sentences end to help ease the transition back into free life. Currently a voluntary program, Lycoming County has not agreed to participate, county President Judge Nancy Butts said.

At the county level, mandatory sentences most affect the prison population by requiring jail time for those convicted of drunken driving, Butts said. The deterrent effect is questionable.

“To hear people talk, (mandatories) aren’t a deterrent at all. It sneaks up on them,” Butts said. “When they slide into a guardrail at 2:30 a.m. or run a blinking red light, once it directly affects their lives it becomes something.”

Area state legislators agree that it’s time to do something about mandatory sentences, which have impacted county and state prisons not only by the number of people sent there but also by the costs of housing them.

Lawmakers said they may want to rethink mandatory sentence legislation. A push for tougher, longer-term sentences 20 years ago may not have been the best option, they said.

“Now we’re seeing that wasn’t such a great idea,” said State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy. “Maybe that’s something we, as a Legislature, need to look at. We haven’t come up with any great short-term solutions.”

Everett said the county was innovative in the mid-1980s when its prison was planned and constructed.

“Lycoming County was one of the first to move ahead with a new prison,” he said. But “the prison isn’t new anymore.”

Everett surmised that parole violators and an increasing number of female offenders are taking up more and more space inside the prison.

“There are people in prison who shouldn’t be in prison,” said state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township. “We had this attitude, which has developed over probably the last 20 years, which is ‘Let’s lock them up and throw away the key.’ The problem with that is we can’t afford it,” he said.

Yaw said the justice system has to be more creative in how it punishes offenders, including using ankle monitoring bracelets and day reporting centers.

“When you look at the numbers, we can’t afford to put all these people in jail. Some of the ideas being kicked around now are the same ideas that were kicked around and rejected 25, 30 years ago and probably were very good ideas,” Yaw said.

Nonviolent offenders who have committed certain crimes also should be assessed, according to state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport.

Driving under the influence makes up one of the biggest categories of criminal proceedings in Lycoming County.

“We really need to look if all of these people really need to be incarcerated. I’m not saying let people out of prison who are violent or are a threat,” Mirabito said.

He said the costs of prosecuting and jailing DUI offenders are enormous. That money could be used to help educate people about the dangers of drinking and driving.

“They may have done something wrong, but we need to find creative solutions that don’t break the taxpayers’ wallets, but still let them know they can’t break the law,” Mirabito said.

He suggested that a citizens’ committee be formed to help collect ideas that state lawmakers can use for potential sentencing reform.

Judge Jeffrey Sprecher, of Berks County, who spoke to local attorneys here in June, authored a book titled “Justice or Just This?” in 2011 that calls for the elimination of mandatory sentences.

“There’s little awareness by the general public of mandatories so they are of little, if any, deterrent value,” Sprecher said. “Neither the length of the sentence nor the imposition of a mandatory per se has any prediction of recidivism. So what good are they?”

Where mandatories affect the criminal disposition process, a concern with a crowded county jail is at the bargaining table.

“Sentencing is supposed to be about the individual and the offense,” said Nicole Spring, a county public defender. “The DA uses them as they want. There’s nothing mandatory about mandatories, unless you’re one of the ones they apply it to.”

A 2009 study of the effectiveness of mandatory sentences by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing found that less than half of all convictions resulted in the mandatory sentence, that only 34 percent of people surveyed could name a crime that came with a mandatory sentence and that the length of a sentence did not predict the chance of an offender committing another crime later.

“More mandatories imposed by the Legislature takes our discretion away,” Butts said. “The more they legislate sentences, the more difficult our job becomes.”

Former county District Attorney, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and now U.S. Rep. Thomas A. Marino, R-Cogan Station, said he is a supporter of mandatory minimum sentences as an effective tool – especially for drug charges.

“I think it’s a deterrent,” he said. “I know it’s a deterrent because I’ve spoken to defendants during my career.”

Marino said he endorses mandatory minimum sentences because of the nature of the crimes associated with them. He said there may be room to review sentencing guidelines at the state level.