Sunday, October 31, 2010

Advocate: We Can't Afford to Put Everyone in Jail

Pennsylvania had 8,243 Inmates in 1980. It Now has More than 51,000.

Below is an interesting op-ed on Pennsylvania's expanding prison population. The column appeared in the October 31, 2010 Harrisburg Patriot-News written by Eric Epstien a Harrisburg reform advocate and frequent contributor to

Where's the outrage over prison costs?

An old and misguided political adage claimed that Democrats built schools and Republicans built prisons.


Society creates conditions for schools to fail and prisons to thrive, but taxpayers underwrite the unsatisfactory results.

Education funding remains a radioactive public policy issue yet the public and politicians are strangely silent and disconnected from the perennial “corrections” hemorrhage.

As Pennsylvania continues to grow prisons, the national trend is moving in the opposite direction.

Last year, according to the Pew Center on the States, prison population declined for the first time in 40 years. Pennsylvania is now No. 1 in prison growth and the cost to operate its Legislature.

I’ll let the reader decide whether there is a connection.

Last May, then state Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard reported prison numbers that should have set off a political shock wave:

The state had 8,243 inmates in 1980. It now has more than 51,000.

There were nine prison facilities with 1,563 correctional officers in 1980. Now there are 27 facilities and more than 9,400 correctional officers.

The corrections budget was $94 million in 1980 and is now $1.7 billion.

Four more prisons are planned at a projected cost of $800 million.

Where’s the outrage? Where’s the tea party? Where are the fiscal reformers screaming about skyrocketing prison costs?

Nobody argues that criminals should be isolated from society.

I taught in adult and juvenile corrections at the state and local level, and can tell you from experience, there are some people that are beyond repair, who will never get better and should not be released into society.

But Pennsylvania’s prison population is growing largely as a result of the incarnation of minor offenders and mandatory minimums.

There are some people who should not be in prison. What’s more, we stink at making people better, and many minor offenders graduate to major offender as a result of incarceration.

Recently, ran a feature by Tom Dochat, “Calculating by Corrections,” which examined prison growth and casual factors. Dochat noted, “The growth in the state’s prison population has been spurred by the relatively minor offender — a person with a drug possession or driving under the influence charge.”

In his May testimony before the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission, then-secretary Beard noted that little more than 2 percent of prison growth in the last decade was attributable to violent crimes while 55 percent of the growth was due to less serious offenses.

Mr. Beard also noted in his testimony the problem with assisting short-termers. “Adding to 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. The average time to minimum for these inmates is eight months, which does not give us time to enter these inmates into programming prior to their parole review.”

New Jersey, New York, Virginia and even Texas have taken steps to reduce prison overcrowding.

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 for short-term offenders, increased transitional services, and, cyber and electronic monitoring.

We can’t afford to put everybody in jail, but we need to strike a balance between keeping people safe and making them broke.

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