Pa., N.J. officials question costs of tough sentencing

Gary M. Lanigan, head of corrections for New Jersey, stands by the state's memorial in Trenton to corrections officers who died in the line of duty. He has focused on reducing costs.
Gary M. Lanigan, head of corrections for New Jersey, stands by the state's memorial in Trenton to corrections officers who died in the line of duty. He has focused on reducing costs. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2011

As states across the country struggle with anemic revenue, officials are taking a harder look at one subset of government that eats huge chunks of taxpayer money: prisons.

Corrections officials on both sides of the Delaware say the "get tough on crime" philosophy that has governed prison operations since the early 1980s must change. It's expensive and, in many cases, it's not working.

"The fact that our budget is $1.86 billion has a lot of people rethinking some of the assumptions we've made in the past," said John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections. "When we over-incarcerate individuals - and there is a portion of our population that we over-incarcerate - we're not improving public safety. Quite the opposite."

Advocates of prison reform say Pennsylvania and New Jersey could be well-positioned for change. Both governors are Republican former prosecutors, credentials that buffer accusations that whittling down the prison population means going "soft" on crime.

And Govs. Corbett and Christie have picked corrections chiefs who support a more rehabilitative approach to corrections, a method that, studies show, can reduce recidivism.

Wetzel and New Jersey's corrections commissioner, Gary M. Lanigan, want to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, diverting them to drug rehabilitation or other programs instead.

"People are realizing that there is a huge cost to incarceration, and there's ways to do it smarter," Lanigan said. "There are people who belong in prison and there's people who are better served in the community."

Recidivism remains a problem nationwide; roughly half of those released in New Jersey and Pennsylvania return within three years.

But while New Jersey's prison population has declined 11 percent to 21,182 department inmates since its peak in 1999, Pennsylvania's population continues to increase.

Since 1999, Pennsylvania's prison population has increased 41 percent, and the state now holds more than 51,000 people. In 2009, Pennsylvania incarcerated more people than any other state that year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

With its prisons stuffed, the state last year shipped more than 2,000 inmates to Michigan and Virginia.

In the fall of 2008, Gov. Ed Rendell temporarily halted parole after a police officer was fatally shot by a recent parolee. The order backed up the system, which accounts for some of the population increase, Wetzel said.

Still, Wetzel said he wanted to fix hang-ups that keep people locked up longer, such as scheduling delays with the parole board.

He is also hoping the legislature will enact changes proposed by an unlikely source: a Republican state senator who helped pass tough sentencing bills that put more people behind bars.

"For how tough we got on crime, you'd think our crime rate would have gone down," said State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who is pushing reform legislation. "It did not. It went up. It went slowly up."

Greenleaf's plan, spelled out in Senate Bill 100, would offer some nonviolent offenders an alternative to prison and beef up treatment programs to help paroled inmates successfully reenter society.

"We have to realize that punishment without rehabilitation is a failure," Greenleaf said.

New Jersey is further ahead on rethinking prison policy.

Christie approved spending an additional $3 million of the 2011 state budget on halfway houses, and he has said he supports keeping nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and in treatment facilities.

But Christie also has shown a willingness to switch carrots for sticks when provoked. Earlier this year, he signed a repeal of a controversial early-release program he called "a total disaster" in an interview with the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. The program, which allowed some inmates within six months of finishing their sentences to leave prison early, came under fire when two inmates were charged with separate homicides soon after their release.

Since his confirmation in March 2010, Lanigan, who most recently was the financial manager for New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority, has focused on trimming waste in the department budget, which now stands at $1.1 billion.

He eliminated an isolated unit for gang members and brought civilly committed sex offenders (those who have finished their sentences but have not yet been released) to a unit on prison grounds - measures expected to save $7.3 million.

He also cut down on delays that kept state prisoners held at county jails awaiting a transfer. Since Lanigan took over, the number of inmates held at county jails has decreased to 317 as of last month, down from about 1,543 in July 2009. That measure was expected to save the state $21.1 million in 2011.

But it has not been all roses.

An audit released by the state comptroller last month found lax oversight at the state's 20 halfway houses, which will be home to an estimated 2,720 inmates leaving prison this year. The halfway-house program will cost $64.6 million this year.

According to the audit, the corrections department overpaid 10 privately run halfway houses by nearly $600,000. It also failed to fine the companies when they violated terms of their contracts. In one case, security failures led to six escapes.

The department is reviewing the incidents mentioned in the report, but Lanigan said many of the comptroller's criticisms were addressed when the department negotiated new contracts with the halfway-house operators in 2010.

"I do not believe that any formal assessment would be that we write checks and hope for the best," Lanigan said, quoting the comptroller's response to the audit findings. "Quite frankly, that was over the top."

Despite the critical report, those who work with recently released inmates say it has been delightful to do business with Lanigan because he respects what they do.

Previous commissioners have treated operators of halfway houses and reentry-program officials as "a necessary nuisance," said Daniel L. Lombardo, president of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley Inc., a nonprofit organization that runs three halfway houses in Camden.

"Lanigan, above all, is a pragmatist," Lombardo said. "He understands what works and what doesn't work; he understands the research. . . . He sees the relationship as a partnership, that we have to work as a team to make sure that we can get the population that we are serving focused on their rehabilitation . . . so that they don't re-offend."

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.


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