Friday, October 19, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Justice reinvestment savings projections lowered

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 19, 2012

Prison reform is a hot-button issue in Pennsylvania. Housing a state prison inmate costs about $32,059 a year, or $87.83 a day. With more than 51,000 inmates in 27 state correctional facilities across the commonwealth the status quo is no longer an option in Pennsylvania

In May, I wrote about Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The Justice Center of The Counsel of State Governments worked with Pennsylvania officials to create a comprehensive public safety plan that would cut prison costs and reinvest the savings into the criminal justice system.

The plan recommended funding for local law enforcement, performance-driven incentives for counties to house state inmates, strengthening local probation and state parole and retooling the state’s community corrections system. The plan was to be funded by an estimated $260 million in savings realized by eliminating inefficiencies in the corrections system and lowering prison population.

Those recommendations were incorporated into Act 122 of 2012, signed by Governor Tom Corbett in July.  However, a separate piece of legislation was needed to allocate the savings and reinvest in policing, supervision, county corrections and community corrections.

This week the state Senate unanimously passed H.B. 135, the second phase of prison reform in Pennsylvania. The bill outlines the formula by which savings will be returned to local governments to carry out the directives of Act 122.

The formula for distribution works like this: 43 percent will be used for local police grants; 26 percent will be allocated for local grants to improve county probation; 21 percent will be used to implement contracts with counties for diversion of low-level offenders; 6 percent will go to the Board of Probation and Parole for costs related to streamlining the parole process; and 4 percent will be used to coordinate and implement improved reentry programs.

However, not all of the $260 million in recommended savings made it into the final version of H.B. 135. The pool of funds for reinvestment was slashed by about 45 percent to $142 million. The revised savings for reinvestment will make already uncertain local officials a little more uneasy.

Beaver County Jail Warden William Schouppe said it is difficult to plan the jail’s budget for next year when there are uncertainties about exactly how the number of inmates might change and what money will be available.

With 402 beds available, the Beaver County jail has been averaging 370 to 380 inmates a month. “My concern is that they may just be taking money from the state and transferring it to the county. If they put more people into the county, it’s more work for the district attorneys, the public defenders, the judges,” Schouppe said. “The tax dollars have to come from somewhere.”

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