Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Prison reform promotes local control

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 28, 2011

On September 28, 2008, then-Governor Edward G. Rendell signed into law a series of prison reform measures, known in part as Act 81. The reforms were intended to reduce costs, ease county jail overcrowding, improve treatment services and among other things provide for the compassionate release of terminally ill inmates. Not all of the reforms have met with success.
A provision of Act 81, Place of Confinement -- 42 Pa.C.S.A. 9762, is scheduled to take effect on November 24, 2011. The new law provides that sentences with maximums between two and five years must be served in a state prison. However, under specific circumstances a judge can order the sentence to be served in a county jail. That is not entirely new. What is new is that the sentencing judge will retain jurisdiction for purposes of parole, not the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.
Act 81 provides that offenders sentenced to a term of two years or more, but less than five years may be confined in a county jail if: (1) the county prison warden certifies that the county jail is at less than 110% of capacity; (2) the district attorney has consented to the confinement; and (3) the sentencing court has approved the placement in the county jail.
According to data compiled by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, in 2009 7,860 sentences included a maximum term of two years or greater but less than five years; of these, 6,080 were committed to a state correctional facility, and 1,205 were committed to county jails. The remaining 575 sentences were state intermediate punishment.
What are the implications for offenders? Initially, an offender who has local ties to the community will be more accessible for purposes of visitation while in a county jail. That is not always the case in the state correctional system. With 28 correctional facilities across the commonwealth some state inmates find themselves far away from family and friends.
An offender serving a sentence in the county jail may also have available the privilege of work release. An offender with a family to support could continue to work while serving her sentence. This often eases a significant burden placed on the non-incarcerated parent.
Administratively the most significant change brought about by the new law is that judges will now make parole decisions, not the Parole Board; and local county probation offices will supervise those offenders after parole instead of the Parole Board.
Criminal defense practitioners should be eager to explore the benefits of Act 81. The trick may be getting a feel for the administrative aspects of the new law. A provision of the reform package provided that the Sentencing Commission would establish parole guidelines for the Parole Board and for judges who invariably will be making more parole decisions. Those guidelines have not yet been established, although the Parole Board has been utilizing internal parole guidelines since 1980.

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