Monday, October 11, 2010

Now Is the Time for Criminal Justice Reform

As voters worry about other issues, policy changes should come into focus

Pennsylvania Law Weekly
October 11, 2010

The time is right for Pennsylvania policy makers to pass meaningful criminal justice reform. Voters are open to change that is fiscally responsible and provides for public safety. Most candidates seeking public office or running for re-election have run from any talk of reducing sentences or letting offenders out of prison early.

Many a political career was sunk when the candidate was labeled "soft-on-crime." Mike Dukakis' presidential aspirations faded when America was introduced to Willie Horton. Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Mark Singel's campaign sunk with Reginald McFadden. Every president since Ronald Reagan, Democrats and Republicans alike, have supported the death penalty, including President Barack Obama.

Not only have office-seekers shunned the perception of being soft, many have used "law and order" as a means to get elected. The crimes code in Pennsylvania has more than doubled since 1972. Prisons are overcrowded and the corrections budget in Pennsylvania is approaching $2 billion. There are over 51,000 inmates in state prison. According to state Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the corrections budget in 1980-81 was $110,388,000. Last year, state funding for corrections was $1,785,240,000. That's an astounding 1,517 percent increase.

There is hope, however.

A recent public opinion poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, on behalf of the Pew Center on the States, found that public sentiment is shifting away from the tough "lock'em up" mentality of the past to a more pragmatic, fiscally responsible approach that reduces prison population and saves money.

This change in sentiment may have something to do with declining crime rates. The FBI reported that violent crime was down 5.3 percent in 2009. The overall number of crimes in Pennsylvania reported to the state police through the Uniform Crime Reporting System dropped by 5.4 percent in 2009, with violent crimes declining 4.9 percent, to their lowest level since 2003.

Crime is not the political hot potato that it was in the 1990s.

In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee an execution in his home state of Arkansas. But today, according to the Pew Survey, only two percent of 1,200 voters surveyed nationwide, felt that crime was the most serious issue facing America. This bodes well for many reform-minded policy makers. Voters are not paying close attention to the crime issue in this election cycle.

What is even more significant is that 90 percent of voters believe that fewer low-risk, non-violent offenders should be behind bars and that the savings should be reinvested into parole services and community supervision. There is bipartisan support for this concept. More than half of Republicans and two-thirds of Democrats surveyed agree.

The Pew survey also found that 91 percent of respondents felt the length of sentence for a low-risk, non-violent offender was not as important as whether he would re-offend once he was released. In fact, those responding to the survey believe that one in five inmates could be released today with little or no impact on public safety.

Finally, a telling finding that is a product of America's current economic woes: 75 percent of the respondents condoned reducing the non-violent, low-risk prison population to save money. Three out of four Americans support what has become known as "piggy bank reform."

The time is right for reform, so what is Pennsylvania doing?

There are three criminal justice reform bills that have passed the Senate and are now pending in the House.

Senate Bill 1275 focuses on the recommitment of technical parole violators which has been criticized in some quarters as contributing to prison overcrowding. The bill provides an alternative to recommitting a technical violator back to state prison through a tiered sanctioning process that may be imposed on a parolee who violates the terms and conditions of his parole. The legislation would encourage successful completion of parole in the community. SB 1275 passed the Senate in June.

Senate Bill 1145 would authorize the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission to develop a worksheet to help judges identify offenders with the lowest probability of being reconvicted of a serious crime. The risk and needs assessment would then be utilized to determine which offenders would be considered for alternative sentencing programs, so that correctional resources are focused on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety and to better utilize alternative sentencing. SB 1145 passed the Senate in June.

Senate Bill 1161 covers a wide swath of criminal justice issues. The bill provides for the adoption of revised guidelines for sentencing; guidelines for state intermediate punishment; the crafting of a risk assessment instrument by the sentencing commission; provides for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole to use evidence-based practices; and addresses related parole issues such as victim participation in hearings and supervision of offenders. SB 1161 was passed by the Senate June 8 and was reported out of the House Appropriations Committee on September 29, 2010.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have taken on an ambitious package of reforms. However, a note of caution as the legislation makes its way through the law making process. Many efforts at reform have focused on low-risk, non-violent offenders. It is important that a common definition of "non-violent" be established.

While it sounds good to include only non-violent offenders, will legislation actually reduce the number of offenders in state prison? Does non-violent mean that any offender who has ever committed a violent crime will be excluded from early release or alternative sentencing?

A significant number of offenders in Pennsylvania's prisons have committed multiple offenses and have violent offenses in their past, even if the offense that landed them in prison is not necessarily violent. Offenders serving non-violent state prison sentences have usually earned their way to state prison by having a history of offending.

After the violent offenders, sex offenders, gun offenders and high risk offenders have been eliminated, "reform" legislation may apply to very few offenders.

Pennsylvania has a golden opportunity to move away from the labels and rhetoric and enact meaningful criminal justice reform. •

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