Karen Heller: Corbett's budget cuts almost everything but prisons

Posted: March 13, 2011

While teachers and education administrators recoil in shock over Gov. Corbett's proposal to slash funding, a $1.65 billion cut representing more than a third of all reductions, life at the Department of Corrections is sort of swell.

Community and economic development? Whacked. Higher education? Halved. Correctional institutions? Up 11 percent, to almost $1.9 billion.

"We need to think smarter about how and when and how long to jail people," Corbett said in his budget address Tuesday. "We need to be tough on crime, but we also need to consider the fiscal implications of our prison system."

The state is proceeding on two projects, a $400 million, 4,000-inmate facility at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, and a $200 million, 2,000-inmate project in Centre County. As it so happens, that's also home to Penn State, which is scheduled to lose more than 50 percent of its Harrisburg appropriations.

Looking to Pennsylvania's future, we're spending more on warehousing criminals, 40 percent of whom are nonviolent offenders.

The commonwealth is so deeply invested in the inmate business that we export them to Michigan and Virginia, which have the room. But Corbett's budget plans for the return of the Michigan inmates by summer's end, just before school starts.

"We might all like the idea of being tough on crime, but it's extraordinarily expensive and counterproductive. Overall, crime has gone down since 1991, yet we incarcerate four times as many people," says John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who teaches criminology at Penn. "Everyone now believes that increasing the length of sentences really has diminishing returns. People age out of crime. Your criminal offensing peaks in the late teens and early 20s and declines rapidly after that."

Older prisoners with longer sentences cost taxpayers far more - as much as $200,000 annually, compared with $32,000 for young offenders - while being of significantly less risk to citizens.

In the last two decades, the state's over-50 inmate population exploded from 370 to almost 8,000. Lifers constitute a tenth of the population, including inmates charged as juveniles yet ineligible for parole - an ignoble practice in which Pennsylvania leads the world.

Criminologists, armed with a battery of statistics and behavioral patterns, have become terribly smart about understanding and reducing crime. In New York state, crime and incarceration rates have notably decreased.

Now Pennsylvania, rich with talented experts, needs to adopt better policies to suppress crime and costs.

"We have an industry here, criminal justice, which has no long-range plan, no unified sense of direction," says the Pennsylvania Prison Society's William DiMascio. "This really is a failure of governance to be more thoughtful in what it is trying to do. I want these guys in criminal justice to come together - the courts, probation, sentencing - and think like a unit in doing something for the public, instead of being independent entities."

One solution is to make more effective assessments at sentencing of who is at risk as a repeat offender and who is not. The state Commission on Sentencing requested $1 million for such a program, which potentially could cut prison costs.

"The idea was that if you can avoid incarcerating someone, yet safeguard the community, perhaps through a halfway program, you can avoid more crimes," said the commission's executive director, Mark H. Bergstrom. The state denied the request.

"We also can't afford to ask counties in our state to subsist on a prison-based economy," Corbett said Tuesday. "We need industries that generate wealth, not sorrow."

The two strongest solutions to reducing crime and prison costs are education and jobs. How is it in a time of less, in a budget where almost everything we value is being cut, the Corbett administration has decided that prisons, true industries of sorrow, merit greater investment?

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

Read her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.


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