GETTING SMART ON CRIME: Prison Reformers Seek Cheaper Ways Outside

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State Sen. Stweart Greenleaf has developed a comprehensive package of low-cost alternatives to prison which he says can save the Commonwealth $400 million a year.

BY TONY WEST/ Prisons aren’t pretty. But they are pretty pricey.

While most other Commonwealth expenditures were cut in this year’s budget, the Dept. of Corrections increased by 4%, to $1.87 billion. And even that represented penny-pinching for the DOC. In the last five years, while the overall State budget grew by 15%, from $24.3 billion to $28.0 billion, DOC’s budget ballooned by 34%, from $1.4 billion.

Reining in runaway growth in prison spending, in the eyes even of an increasing number of conservatives, is a business necessity. Society must find cheaper and more-effective ways to keep criminals from offending again.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), the veteran chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a package of reform legislation this year that aims comprehensively to retool our approach to incarceration, by either keeping offenders out of prison as much as possible, or getting as many out as quickly as possible.

One reason is money. If all his measures are enacted, estimates are they will reduce spending on prisons by $400 million – at no added risk to public safety.

Three of Greenleaf’s bills have already been passed by the Senate. In the process, they were vetted by its Appropriations Committee, which verified that collectively, they will save the State money. How much money? A lot, according to then-DOC Secretary Jeffrey Beard – $180 million is a middle-of-the-road estimate.

These proposals – SB 1145, 1161 and 1275 – are now being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee. They would develop a risk-assessment tool to help judges sort out high-risk from low-risk offenders when it comes to sentencing, ease the release of inmates with special needs into community reentry programs toward the close of their sentences, and keep parolees from being automatically locked up for long periods of time over minor technical violations.

A basic rule of thumb is cost per prisoner. This ranges (facilities vary) from $29,000 to $40,000 per inmate per year – comparable to what some universities charge students seeking a bachelor’s degree. But all prisoners are on a “scholarship” 100% paid for by the taxpayers. So when the criminal-justice system takes a step that puts 33 more people in prison for a year, that’s an extra $1 million on the bill; when it finds non-prison solutions for 33 inmates, that takes $1 million off the bill.

Alternatives to incarceration come with their own costs, of course. But they pale in comparison to that of full-scale imprisonment. Currently, an offender on probation costs $1,250 a year and a parolee $2,750 a year.

No one argues current expenditures permit probation-and-parole officers to do their job as well as we would probably like. Caseloads are staggeringly high and available service resources are stretched thin. But by the same token, it is much cheaper to beef up community-based supervision, training and treatment programs than it is to build a new prison.

Four more of Greenleaf’s measures still await review by the Senate Appropriations Committee for “fiscal notes.” These are analyses of their impact on the State’s bottom line, positive or negative.

For the most part, these are the big-ticket bills that would mandate new agencies, new programs, new workers or other new services. One would enable counties to impose quick, short stays in jail for on-street offenders who are resisting compliance with substance-abuse treatment. Another would found a Safe Community Reentry Program to coordinate community-based alternatives for offenders.

A third would appropriate $50 million to staff more parole officers, set up treatment courts, and add intermediate-punishment, treatment and other reentry programs for offenders. A fourth would make more nonviolent offenders (most inmates are nonviolent) eligible for community-based programs.

New spending is involved, therefore. But Greenleaf argues it’s an investment that has been proven to work in other states – Virginia, Texas and Michigan, for example. Michigan is a good example because its population (10 million) and demographics are quite similar to Pennsylvania’s.

“Michigan invested $23 million in its prisoner reentry services and has decreased its overall corrections spending by $120 million, with 3,260 fewer inmates,” argues Greenleaf. “In fact, Michigan is now housing some of Pennsylvania’s prisoners.”

So these new, or newly enriched, programs are crucial to bringing public-safety costs under control. The choice cannot be between bulging prisons with bare-bones services, and scantily monitored parolees with bare-bones services; society can’t really afford either path.

Two more of Greenleaf’s bills have been brought back to Judiciary for further work. One would authorize “drug and violence task forces” in select high-crime areas; the other would expand paid work in marketable skills for inmates to ease their reentry.

Together, these measures amount to a fundamental restructuring of how we treat criminals. Serious public-safety and economic concerns surround several of them. It’s guaranteed they will be closely and cautiously studied. Some are already in line for revision after the state’s District Attorneys complained about them.

But as a tool for crime control, incarceration has lost its cutting edge. As a nation, we already imprison more people than any other nation in the world – with no apparent improvement in crime rates. We cannot keep doubling prison populations and tripling budgets indefinitely. The search for another way has begun.

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