Tuesday, April 27, 2010

PA State Senator Proposes Prison Reform Package

Office of Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf

HARRISBURG—Seven prison reform bills introduced by State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf (R, Montgomery, Bucks) addressing the state’s overcrowded prisons and high rate of recidivism are moving through the State Legislature.

The proposals have been in development since the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Greenleaf chairs, held a public hearing on the issue last November. Greenleaf began introducing legislation in November.

“As Pennsylvania transfers thousands of prisoners out of state, even as we continue to construct new prisons, now is the time to enact serious prison reform measures,” said Greenleaf.

The state’s inmate population has increased by a staggering 618% between 1980 and 2010 (from 8,243 in 1980 to over 51,000 inmates in 2010). If the prison population continues to increase at the current rate, beginning in 2012 Pennsylvania may have to build a new prison every year at a cost of over $200 million to build and $60 million annually to operate. The past five years have seen the sharpest increase in incarceration, exacerbated by a two month moratorium on parole following the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer in 2008. The three new facilities currently under construction are expected to open in 2013 and will be immediately filled to capacity.

Prison population growth in Pennsylvania, as in most states across the country, is mainly due to the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders. Sixty percent of Pennsylvania’s inmates do not have a history of violence or any significant drug dealing activity. Four out of five drug arrests in the state are for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five drug arrests were for sales.

About 46% of offenders return to prison within months of their release for committing new crimes or for a technical violation of their parole. 3,000 Technical Parole Violators (TPVs) were re-incarcerated in 2008 alone for violations such as breaking curfew or failing to report to their parole officer. TPVs spend an average 14 months in prison [following their recommitment] with no real affect on recidivism over those diverted for shorter periods.

According to Greenleaf, punishment without rehabilitation is a failure. “While we have earnestly sought to incorporate rehabilitation into the punishment process, too few inmates are receiving the needed programming. Programs such the State Intermediate Punishment Program (SIP) are underutilized. As well, many inmates do not receive parole because of a backlog of those waiting to complete programs before the end of their minimum sentence.”

Greenleaf reports that once inmates have been released, they easily lapse into criminal behavior because of their inability to find employment and living with the stigma of incarceration.

In addition, family ties are broken during incarceration, separating inmates from what is often their only means of support. The children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.

“Many of the state’s non-violent offenders would be better served completing treatment or other sanctions in a community based setting rather than in a state prison, said Greenleaf. “This would better enable these individuals to reestablish healthy, crime free lives while they continue to support their families. As well, this would save Pennsylvania’s prison space for dangerous criminals who must be confined.”

Senator Greenleaf’s Prison Package Includes the Follow Bills:

SB 1145: Risk and Needs Assessment

Because current alternative sentencing programs are underutilized, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission would develop a worksheet to help judges identify offenders with the lowest probability of being reconvicted of a serious crime. These offenders are then considered for alternative sentencing programs, so that correctional resources are focused on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety. *This bill was reported from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 15, 2009 and referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 1, 2010.

SB 1161: Short Minimum Cases

This legislation would allow inmates with short minimum sentences to be moved to community corrections centers for community-based treatment. The bill overturns a regulation that an inmate may not be transferred to a prerelease center until the inmate has served at least nine months in a state correctional institution. These offenders, with short sentences, are the less serious offenders and there is no reason to hold them in secure prison cells when they are otherwise eligible for prerelease. While confined at a community corrections center, these offenders could participate in job training and take advantage of educational opportunities. *This bill was reported from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 15, 2009 and referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 1, 2010.

SB 1193: HOPE Program

Hawaii’s HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) is gaining national attention after reducing drug use by 90 percent among probationers. Focusing on offenders who have committed drug-related crimes, HOPE lays out clear expectations for drug-free behavior, then backs it up with swift, certain, but brief punishment. The legislation would authorize county courts of common pleas to establish similar programs for their counties. *This legislation was reported from the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 26, 2010 and referred to the Appropriations Committee on March 9, 2010.

SB1198: The Safe Community Reentry Program

This program would link the education, vocational training, and treatment offenders receive in prison with what they will need for a successful reentry into the community. There is a need to ensure that the training inmates receive in prison will correspond with job opportunities once they are released. The legislation directs the Department of Corrections to contract with private vendors, including non-profit and faith-based organizations, to transition inmates from prison to the community by helping them secure housing and employment, providing medical and mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment and education. They may also work with offenders to re-establish family relationships and create mentoring programs to help develop accountability and personal responsibility. *This legislation was reported from the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 16, 2010, referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 13, 2010.

SB1275: This legislation establishes a graduated sanctioning process for state parole violators. The system is designed to hold the parolee accountable for a technical parole violation while avoiding the cost of recommitting the parolee to prison. A violation sanctioning grid will be developed that divides violations into high, medium and low range violations. An example of a high range violation is assaultive behavior; a medium range violation is the possession of unauthorized contraband; and a low range violation is the failure to pay supervision fees. The grid will include high, medium and low sanction ranges. An example of a high sanction is shock incarceration; a medium sanction is electronic monitoring; and a low sanction is increased reporting requirements. *On April 13, 2010, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported Senate Bill 1275 from committee. On April 20, 2010, the Senate re-referred Senate Bill 1275 to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

SB1298: This legislation will invest an additional $50 million into criminal justice agencies and programs that will help reduce our state and county prison populations and, in the long run, improve public safety and save money for the Commonwealth and counties. *This legislation was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee on March 30, 2010.

SB1299: This legislation makes more nonviolent offenders eligible for Pennsylvania’s alternative sentencing programs. These programs include county intermediate punishment (CIP), state intermediate punishment (SIP), state motivational boot camp, and the recidivism risk reduction incentive (RRRI).

SIP is an intensive drug treatment program involving incarceration in state prison initially followed by community-based treatment. Currently the district attorney must request that a defendant be referred to the Department of Corrections for an assessment that will determine whether SIP is appropriate. The defendant must agree to be referred. Once the assessment takes place, the district attorney and the defendant must agree to the commitment. The legislation removes these requirements so that the judge may refer the defendant for assessment and the judge may commit an eligible offender to SIP. *On April 13, 2010, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported Senate Bill 1299 from committee. On April 20, 2010, the Senate re-referred Senate Bill 1299 to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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