GETTING SMART ON CRIME: Can We Start To Empty Our Prisons?

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State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, veteran leader of the Judiciary Committee, is mapping out a methodical effort to cut Pennsylvania's bloated prison population.

BY TONY WEST/ A historic movement is underway in Harrisburg to revisit our underlying model for dealing with crime – and it is being led by one of the men who helped put the current model in place 25 years ago. “Lock them up and throw away the key” isn’t a good-enough answer any more. The new watchword is, “Get smart on crime.”

Starting in 1960, an explosion of crime fueled a passion for punishment in American hearts. Legislators vied with each other to press for longer and surer sentences for all classes of offenders. Pennsylvania and the nation went on a prison-building boom; we now lead the world in the proportion of our citizens that are incarcerated.

It didn’t work, says State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who has sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee since 1985 and now chairs it. “Our prison population kept going up and our crime kept going up,” he notes. “Our recidivism rate is 46%. That’s a failed system. We’re spending a lot of money, but we’re not having results and we’re not changing lives.”

Now, armed with reams of research, Greenleaf and others, he says, are “working on the system to try to turn it around.” Too many people are in prison for too long; meanwhile, too little is being done either to keep them out in the first place or to keep them from going back for seconds.

Today’s high incarceration rates were driven by a generation of patchwork legislation overlaid on the complex criminal-justice system. To cut incarceration calls for equally complex lawmaking. And because the issue is crime, lawmakers proceed with caution.

Nevertheless, a broad, bipartisan consensus is shaping up around one core idea: that too many nonviolent offenders are locked up. “We began the push for tougher sentencing to crack down on the big bad guys,” Greenleaf says. “Unfortunately, we caught a lot of little fish in the net. Nonviolent offenders are the ones who are driving the increase in the prison population. Our sentencing practices are not good and our parole practices are not good.”

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.

Seven prison-reform bills introduced by Greenleaf, addressing the state’s overcrowded prisons and high rate of recidivism, are moving through the General Assembly.

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 December.

Three of these bills – SB 1145, 1161 and 1275 – were approved by Judiciary and passed by the full Senate in June. They are now being debated by the State House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

Two bills passed with near unanimity in the Senate. They would install two programs that have worked well in other states.

SB 1145 will require the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to come up with a risk-and-needs assessment tool for judges that can predict how likely the miscreant is to reoffend, how big a threat to public safety he poses, and also what his rehabilitative needs are. Higher-risk offenders should be slotted toward prison, lower-risk offenders toward alternative punishments. Tools like these have helped drive down prison populations in Virginia and Missouri – while reducing crime rates at the same time.

SB1275 aims to ease the pain of harsh automatic reincarceration for all parole violations. In everyday life, not all violations are equal threats to public safety. Currently, a parolee who assaults somebody will go directly to jail, without passing Go; but so will a parolee who falls behind on his supervision-fee payments. SB 1275 would establish a “violation sanctioning grid” that rates parole violations by severity. The measure mandates less-restrictive sanctions for low-level technical violations. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard estimates 3,000 of the state’s 50,000 prisoners could be released as a result, without increasing recidivism.

The third bill took some fire in the Senate before passing; it ran into opposition in a House Judiciary hearing as well, and is sure to be reworked before it comes up for a vote there. SB 1161 is designed to move more inmates out of jail cells and into “prerelease” programs where they can receive rehabilitation for substance-abuse, mental-health, education and job handicaps. “It makes little sense to tie up our valuable and costly prison beds for what, in large part, are less-serious offenders,” Beard testified.

The state’s DAs aren’t so sure about that, however, and they have pushed back, complaining as written, SB 1161 could release violent offenders too early. “I believe being smart on crime does not mean being soft on criminals,” Philadelphia DA Seth Williams retorts. “I agree with Sen. Greenleaf that we must reform the criminal-justice system and I hope to find common ground to make changes that will make Pennsylvania safer. However, I do not support the Senator’s current bills. Law-enforcement agencies and victims groups are also strongly opposed. This legislation package is bad for public safety. It would, among other things, provide for early release for violent offenders: those convicted of witness intimidation, statutory sexual assault, homicide by DUI, aggravated and simple assault, and indecent assault. Violent offenders should not get a break.”

Many DAs are also dubious about prerelease programs, which typically are unsecured facilities where offenders check in and out. “Recent research has shown [they] have inadequate treatment programs,” Williams charges.

The House Judiciary Committee this summer will be the arena in which both sides try to work out language to allay these concerns. State Rep. Ron Waters, who sits on this Committee, describes it as the key problem. “No member of the House wants to go against the DAs, and nobody wants to look soft on crime,” he says. But he is optimistic it’s a nut the Committee can crack by the time Labor Day rolls around.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, it is Democrats who have pressed hard on this issue. SB 1161 drew 20 yeas from Republicans as opposed to only 9 nays, perhaps reflecting their great respect for Greenleaf’s integrity and craftsmanship. By contrast, Democrats voted 12 to 6 against the measure. However, some Democrat constituencies are hard hit by high incarceration rates and House Dems will likely find a way to take some action on it in the end.

Meanwhile, Greenleaf’s four other prison-reform bills are on ice in the Senate Appropriations Committee, waiting to see what happens to the first three in the House. Look for renewed action on them in the fall. As long as the prison population keeps soaring, Greenleaf plans to keep hitting.

“This is not rocket science,” he says. “Other states have cut incarceration, cut costs, and done so safely.”

NEXT WEEK: the balancing acts of prison reform.

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2 Responses to GETTING SMART ON CRIME: Can We Start To Empty Our Prisons?

  1. When our justice system sentence 13-year-olds to life in prison without the possibility of parole, they have decided that the child’s life was worthless from the day of birth.

    What’s even more morbid is many citizens in the Republic embrace the philosophy of “juvenile lifers.” Some will argue that, “They did the crime, they must do the time,” but the same individuals don’t factor in the lack education, social economic background, mental disorders, and the circumstances of the crime that would motivate a child to commit an act of violence that would cause them to spend the rest of their lives imprisoned.

    Even more haunting is 18% of juvenile lifers are from Pennsylvania which leads the nation, and some critics to think that number will increase over the next decade if we don’t address and change these sentencing policies.

    Conversely, “I believe the children are our future” rings hollow when many of their futures will be permanently spent as a resident at an already overcrowded penal system.

    Anthony P. Johnson

    Anthony P. Johnson
    August 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm

  2. Dusty: This is not a blog. This is the online interactive component of a weekly newspaper. Each week, we select six articles for special attention and linking ease online. The entire newspaper can also be read online, using “page-turning” software. We recommend you read all of each issue, if you want to track politics and public affairs in Philadelphia!

    Jim Tayoun
    September 2, 2010 at 10:40 am

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