A proposal to revamp the state's corrections system that could save $350 million over five years is winning praise from local lawmakers, but one person who has spent his career in the courtroom says the recommendations come too late.
Gov. Tom Corbett is urging the state Legislature to adopt ideas from The Council of State Governments' "justice reinvestment" report that aims to decrease the number of offenders in prison by sending inmates nearing parole to dedicated community corrections centers.
The report says Pennsylvania's parole system - among 15 other states in the study - often keeps inmates in prison even after they are approved for parole. It also shows inmates do not receive benefits from reform programs in prison because many are cycled in and out of the system due to sentencing practices.
Corbett said he wants lawmakers to approve changes by the end of this month to help control the state's Corrections Department's $2 billion budget that covers 51,000 inmates.
"For many years in the past decade or so, the philosophy has been, 'Lock them up and throw away the key.' We cannot afford to do that," said state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township. "We're not hurting anybody but ourselves. I've spoken to prison officials who have said they have inmates who shouldn't really be there. Somebody has to recognize how much money that costs across the board. When we put people in jail, we're responsible for them"
Yaw said the proposal does not decriminalize the actions of offenders, but suggests alternate methods of punishment. He said the state should follow Lycoming County's corrections framework with its Pre-Release Center and supervised bail monitoring.
"To some extent, putting people in jail and forgetting about them is the easiest, but I'm not sure it's the best," said Yaw. "If people have a job, they're less likely to commit crime."
State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said he also supports the study's recommendations.
"I think it's extremely important, especially if these are nonviolent offenders," including drug offenders, he said. "We ought to find a way to get them into the communities working so they're paying taxes."
Mirabito added that keeping prison space open for those who need it most and reforming offenders is the goal.
"When we talk about doing things like this, we're not talking about being soft on crime, we're being smart on crime," he said.
William J. Miele, Lycoming County's chief public defender, also supports the justice reinvestment study, but said the ideas should have been put in place long ago before the state's budget went on the chopping block.
Miele said lawmakers used scare tactics to bolster spending on corrections and justice programs 20 years ago when sending offenders away for long periods of time was commonplace.
"It has been a disaster," Miele said. "What they're saying is (what happened) 20 year ago is a mistake. Now they're doing it when the bank is broke. They're recognizing the folly of all these years."
Miele said the state's prison system, which has one of the oldest inmate populations in the country, doesn't reform offenders.
"Now it's all about money and not helping people like it should have been," he said. "It would be nice if we could sit down and have an intelligent discussion about crime and the people who commit crime without fearmongering over drugs or our pocketbooks. And if that's what Corbett is proposing, I applaud him. Better late than never."