A coalition of over 50 groups, organizations and individuals concerned with the criminal justice system is advocating the passage of a strong earned-time bill. Support for the legislation includes correctional officers, wardens, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Correction, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and prisoners' rights lawyers.
Governor Casey's Task Force on Corrections recently issued its report on the state correctional system and strongly endorsed earned-time legislation and the earlier recommendations of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The Pennsylvania Budget and Finance Committee, which is conducting an audit of the correctional system, also endorsed earned time legislation.
Both reports indicate that the gap between existing cell space and future population projections will continue to widen throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Newly appointed state Commissioner of Corrections David Owens is another advocate for earned-time legislation. Prior studies by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Justice Department favor the earned-time concept.
Why are all these groups supporting such a bill? Currently 48 states have such a program. Pennsylvania's prisons and jails, like others across the country, are operating well above capacity. State prison populations have grown 94 percent since 1980. This tremendous increase in population has brought with it a corresponding increase in tensions within prisons.
More and more inmates are forced into double-bunked cells. Violations of prison regulations are dramatically rising. Pennsylvania has already embarked on a major prison construction program but new facilities are immediately filled beyond capacity.
All too often, changes in prison conditions occur only after riots bring such problems to the public's attention. Only then do courts and legislators take an in-depth look at the conditions inside prisons and jails. Rather than wait for riots or court intervention, Pennsylvania has an opportuntity to address this problem with earned-time legislation.
While the coalition of supporters is gratified that so many groups, individuals and studies favor earned time, we are concerned as to the particulars that the final bill would include. The Senate version calls for six days per month earned time and is lower than the national average of 10 days per month.
Only the House version seeks a meritorious system, in which specific guidelines are established to determine earned time. A meritorious program would encourage participation in educational and vocational programing. Studies have indicated that participation in vocational programs sharply reduces the recidivism rate upon release.
With illiteracy running as high as 60 percent in the prisons, the need to stress basic educational skills is important.
Retroactivity is another feature that would strengthen the bill and heighten its immediate impact on overcrowding. Under this provision, the history of each inmate is considered to determine eligibility for earned time.
With new admissions already living in gymnasiums, day rooms, mental health units and infirmaries, the need for immediate relief is upon us. Inclusion of county inmates would also address the equally serious problem of overcrowding in county jails.
Deducting earned-time credits from both the minimum and maximum sentence would help alleviate, rather than shift, the burden of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.
A graduated scale allowing for higher rates of accumulation for long termers would help reduce the unprecedented increase in long termers as a portion of our prison population. Our coalition favors the inclusion of these progressive concepts in an earned-time package.
Our coalition strongly urges an earned-time bill that will give prison administrators an additional tool needed to control a potentially unruly population.
Such a bill will save the taxpayers millions of dollars that will otherwise be needed for new construction and additonal staffing. In fact, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency projects a 7.7 percent reduction in the average daily prison population by the year 2,000 if a system of earned time is enacted.
Such a reduction - approximately 1,500 inmates - would save the commonwealth well over $200 million.
The passage of this legislation would better protect society as 90 percent of those currently incarcerated will eventually return to our midst. Upon return they will have been encouraged to learn needed educational and vocational skills instead of coming out with bitterness and an increased propensity toward criminal behavior.
The inmate will have the benefit of a more orderly as well as less crowded prison environment and the potential for an early release. Our coalition supports Pennsylvania's efforts to join the other states that have such programs.