"The purpose of those bills was to address the violent criminals," and that worked, Greenleaf says. "But we also got in our net many little fish. Meaning the nonviolent offenders."
The result, says Greenleaf: "We went from seven state prisons in 1980 to where we now have 27, and we're building one every year. Our prison population went from around 8,000 inmates to over 51,000."
Each new prison costs $200 million to build, $50 million a year to run. Each inmate costs $35,000 a year, including overhead. That's more than a year's tuition at Penn State or Temple, and 10 times what it costs to keep a man or woman on probation. And that's not counting vast expansion projects at existing facilities such as Graterford Prison.
"I'd spend all that money and more if I thought it was helping public safety. But it's not," Greenleaf said.
"While we've been getting tough on crime and using the punishment model, our violent crime hasn't gone down as you'd have expected with those tough laws.
"We've been adding 2,000 inmates a year, while other states who have made reforms, such as New York and Texas, are reducing their prison populations" by changing the way they handle nonviolent offenders.
Of Pennsylvania's inmates, 39 percent have been convicted of using illegal drugs, drunken driving, fraud, receiving stolen property. An additional 15 percent are in for parole violations.
Greenleaf and his allies, many of them Democrats, want judges to use "risk-and-needs assessments" to determine penalties. They want corrections officials to process offenders with short sentences more quickly. They want shorter but faster punishments for "technical" parole violators, and shorter sentences for offenders who successfully address their drug and alcohol abuse.
They want drug courts, alcohol courts, mental-health courts, to push offenders who need change into treatment, instead of prison.
Jeffrey Beard, corrections commissioner for Govs. Ridge and Ed Rendell, made similar pleas before the General Assembly last year.
Can we trust them?
Some of these measures have already been enacted. More are in Greenleaf's Senate Bill 100, which will be up for consideration this spring.
Gov. Corbett's new budget seems to assume Greenleaf will be successful. He canceled one of four planned new prisons and modestly boosted funds for parole and "intermediate punishment programs" (halfway houses, "boot camp," drug and alcohol treatment).
Greenleaf is "on the right track - mandatory sentencing, especially mandatory sentencing around drugs, is responsible for the increase in prisons," Ann Schwartzman, policy director for the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, said.
The best news is the push to let judges choose "evidence-based treatment," which is "a huge change" for the criminal-justice system, Schwartzman said. She credited Rep. Greg Vitale (D., Delaware) for helping lead the charge for "results-based" programs.
A lot of us want to believe drug, alcohol, and mental-health treatment are not only cheaper but more effective than locking people who do knucklehead things into expensive prisons.
But governments have a history of relentlessly funding brick-and-mortar institutions such as prisons and the old state hospitals, while leaving softer programs such as parole and outpatient mental-health services vulnerable to cost-cutting cycles.
Can we trust Greenleaf's colleagues and successors, and Corbett, to keep spending more on parole officers and treatment programs to fix broken people? Or will our kids have to build even bigger prisons?
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com.