HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania could save tens of millions of dollars a year by reserving state prison beds for criminals convicted of the most serious crimes and serving longer terms and by diverting more low-level offenders to other programs, consultants said in a report released Wednesday.
The report by The Council of State Governments says decreasing reliance on prison space would shrink the prison population by thousands of inmates and save $350 million over five years. Further, it says only a quarter of that amount would be needed to finance the changes it recommends elsewhere in the system, such as dedicating the community corrections centers for prisoners nearing parole.
Pennsylvania is one of 16 states participating in the council's justice-reinvestment initiative, designed to help states reduce prison spending and enhance public safety. The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States financed the research.
Council researchers spent months working with state officials to analyze data about Pennsylvania's criminal justice system. Their report won a vote of confidence Wednesday from a working group that includes state officials, legislators, judges and prosecutors.
Gov. Tom Corbett called the proposals "very logical" and said he wants lawmakers to pass the council recommendations by June before they break for their summer recess.
"We have a finite amount of money and an infinite amount of requests for that money," the Republican said in brief remarks to the panel.
Authors of the report said the state's correctional system faces serious challenges, including an inefficient parole process that keeps many inmates in prison even after they are approved for parole, and sentencing practices that result in thousands of short-term inmates cycling in and out of prison before they can benefit from programs that could make them less likely to commit future crimes.
The Corrections Department budget is nearing $2 billion with a prison population of 51,000 inmates - more than six times the 1980 total - and a recidivism rate of about 43 percent.
Among the recommendations in the "justice reinvestment" report:
Revamp the state-run community-corrections centers - a $100 million network of intensive residential facilities with a capacity of 4,400 beds - to hold inmates who are being released on parole or punish parolees who commit technical violations. Prisoners who have not been approved for parole could no longer be assigned to the community facilities.
Require offenders convicted of low-level misdemeanors to be sentenced to non-prison sanctions, such as local incarceration or probation.
Use grants to reward counties that divert offenders serving short terms from prison and strengthen their probation and parole departments.
Increase grants to police departments for developing creative responses to law enforcement and for supporting statewide initiatives that benefit all departments, such as new approaches to training.
Increase the number of parole case interviews by 20 percent from the current 1,800 a month to nearly 2,200 by 2015.
Tony Fabelo, research director for the council's Justice Project, briefed the panelists on the recommendations and stressed that they are inter-related and should be considered collectively.
"This is a package deal," he said.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and an outspoken advocate for corrections reform, said the package would promote rehabilitation while preserving tough penalties for crime. He said he thinks it's possible the package could be passed before the recess.
"I know it will be well received in the Senate," said the Montgomery County Republican, a member of the panel. "With the governor's support, I believe we can get it through the House."
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel noted that the Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate are represented on the working group. "This is not a new issue to them," he said. But "obviously, the devil is in the details."
Pennsylvania is one of 16 states participating in the council's justice-reinvestment initiative, designed to help states reduce prison spending while enhancing public safety. The research is financed by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States.