GETTING SMART ON CRIME: A Flurry Of Bills Chips Away At Prison Walls

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BY TONY WEST/ Pennsylvania’s prison population is huge and soaring even higher. It stands apart, not only from the rest of the world, but from many other states. In 1980, there were 8,243 inmates in the Keystone State; last year, there were 51,326.
The Commonwealth can’t build prisons fast enough; it is exporting prisoners to other states. And it can’t spend money fast enough – the Dept. of Corrections budget is now almost $1.8 billion and climbing.
And the killer is – most of these inmates aren’t killers, or anything close. More than half are nonviolent offenders.
It doesn’t have to be this way, argues State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf. Neighboring states like New York and Virginia have taken concerted actions to cut their prison populations. Fewer people are going to prison, and more are getting out early. Yet crime is down there.
“This is not rocket science,” Greenleaf asserts. “These are tried and tested methods that can work here too.”
Greenleaf, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has never been seen as “soft on crime”. In the Senate since 1985, he was a vigorous advocate of the get-tough legislation that swept Pennsylvania and the nation starting in the 1980s. “We have changed the Constitution twice in this process,” he reckons.
Today, he admits this approach didn’t get the results he had expected. “We need now, not so much to get tough on crime, but to get smart on crime,” he says.
That a respected senior Republican leader in Harrisburg can say such things is a sign of changing times. A bipartisan faction of lawmakers is pressing to wind down our ballooning prisons. On the Democrat side of the aisle, State Sen. Shirley Kitchen has also been a dynamic leader in this movement, aided by Appropriations Committee Chair Jay Costa.
The prison explosion required scores of laws over dozens of years. Rethinking crime and punishment to move in the opposite direction is also a gargantuan project.
Three measures written by Greenleaf passed the Senate – a Republican-dominated body – in June and are being studied in the House now. If the House approves them also, six more bills are waiting in the Senate Appropriations Committee to move forward. Other General Assembly members are advancing their own laws to support this cause.
Greenleaf’s SB 1193 authorizes each county court to establish predictable and immediate sanctions on probation violators, particularly substance abusers. It’s modeled on a successful program in Hawai’i, which found it is more important to punish people swiftly than severely. Most offenders don’t have a long-term vision. A small risk of going to jail for a long time, starting a year from now, doesn’t catch their attention. Twenty-four hours in the pokey right away, however, yanks their chain and motivates them to get with their program: less incarceration, but smarter incarceration.
SB 1198 is more ambitious. It would establish a comprehensive program to work for successful reentry of ex-offenders into society. Currently, in many cases, prisoners get out with little education, few job skills, drug or mental problems, broken families, and no homes. This is a toxic recipe for recidivism, the risk of which peaks in the first year after release. If this measure is enacted, it would create, for the first time, a system with a mission to provide post-release services to offenders as a core piece of the criminal-justice system.
Another measure, SB 1298, would pump $50 million into parole and reentry services. Testifying in its favor, Parole Board Chairwoman Catherine McVey said, “When comparing those states that have been successful, typically significant funding has been invested in recidivism-reducing strategies rather than prison-bed construction.”
SB 1299 would make more nonviolent offenders eligible for Pennsylvania’s alternative-sentencing programs. Another bill, SB 1237, would create an Authority to provide meaningful work for some prisoners, at the going community rate for such work, so they can develop job skills and work habits that are transferrable to the outside world.
Public anxiety about violent criminals is the chief driver for get-tough legislation and prison-building. As a result, “smart on crime” proponents take care to move in tandem with efforts to rein in violent crime. One of Greenleaf’s measures, SB 150, would set up grants to fund crime-fighting in high-crime areas.
It’s a direction other legislators are moving in. State Sen. Mike Stack’s proposed SB 902 aims, in his words, “to ensure violent and career criminals serve more time in prison and less time on the streets.” To allay public worries about alternative sentencing, it would prohibit repeat violent offenders from being sent to a halfway house as part of parole. Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was murdered by a parolee with a history of violent offenses who “walked away” from a halfway house before he finished his sentence. Early-release programs can’t grow if headlines like these keep appearing.
At the same time, Stack has introduced another bill, SB 1410, that hopefully would lead to some prisoners’ discharge. It would create a commission within the Pennsylvania Courts dedicated to investigating claims of wrongful conviction. “We know the criminal-justice system is imperfect and imprisons or penalizes an unknown number of innocent people,” Stack noted. “These imperfections could not be made any more evident than during the recent juvenile-justice corruption scandal in Luzerne Co.”
In the House, State Rep. Ron Waters is tackling the problem from another angle. He wants to merge the State’s Parole Board with the Dept. of Corrections. Simply by administrative reorganization, he says, Michigan was able to cut both its corrections budget and its prison population.
Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson’s HB 1999. This bill would provide juvenile offenders serving life sentences must have opportunities for parole at least once during their first 15 years of incarceration, and at least once every three years thereafter.
Research has shown youthful offenders, even those who commit heinous deeds, are different from adults, Johnson points out. Adolescent brains aren’t fully formed, so teenagers cannot understand the full consequences of their actions. By the same token, these same brains change as they grow.
America leads the world in hurling long sentences at underage criminals. If such inmates have more ways to leave prison, earlier and safely, that can mean fewer mouths for taxpayers to feed – and wall in.
NEXT WEEK: “Smart on crime” means money.

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