True Prison Reform Continues to Elude Pennsylvania

Posted: July 09, 2012

GOV. CORBETT on Thursday signed Senate Bill 100 into law. The bill, introduced by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, is intended to decrease the state's prison population and reduce corrections spending. The governor, who supported SB100 and recently initiated Pennsylvania's Justice Reinvestment process, has claimed the mantle of a prison reformer.

But we all know that actions speak louder than words, and Corbett's actions speak volumes. As he pushes through another year of drastic budget cuts to education, social services and healthcare, Corbett has moved rapidly ahead with a massive expansion of Pennsylvania's prisons. The budget continues to provide funding for a $685 million plan to construct over 5,000 new prison beds across the state. If Corbett and Pennsylvania legislators are truly committed to prison reform, they would cancel these expensive and unnecessary prison projects and redirect that money to the services that people need.

SB100 does include modest steps toward the goal of prison reform. It expands eligibility for alternative sentencing programs, allows for intermediate sanctions so that fewer technical parole violators are sent to prison, and makes some efforts at diverting people with low level offenses from state prison sentences.

However, the bill also takes some significant steps backwards, in particular by eliminating the pre-release program that allows qualifying prisoners to be paroled to halfway houses before their minimum dates. Pre-release gives people the chance to re-enter their communities and begin rebuilding their lives. It also saves the state money without compromising public safety. Eliminating the ability of men and women to earn pre-release is costly and shortsighted.

Other provisions were notably absent from the bill. In particular, SB100 failed to take up the issue of Pennsylvania's excessive use of lengthy sentences and its growing number of elderly prisoners. In 1980, there were 370 prisoners over the age of 50 in Pennsylvania's state prisons. Today, our prisons house more than 8,000 elderly people. In 2005, the Joint State Government Commission's Advisory Committee on Geriatric and Seriously Ill Inmates recommended mandating parole eligibility for anyone who is over 50 years of age and has been incarcerated for more than 25 years. A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, entitled "At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly," demonstrates that states would save an average of $66,000 per person per year by releasing elderly prisoners needlessly kept behind bars. Such policy changes would also allow older prisoners who had already served long sentences the chance to return to their families and communities.

Pennsylvania also has a lot further to go on parole reform. SB100 diverts technical parole violators from state prison, but proposes confining them in Community Corrections Centers instead. Sending people to Community Corrections Centers merely shifts the cost to different facilities. If a person on parole commits a technical parole violation, which can be something as simple as missing an appointment or changing his address without informing a parole officer, is it really a wise investment of taxpayer money to confine that person? It makes more sense to spend money on programming, treatment, and resources that help people on parole lead successful lives and stay out of prison.

Ultimately, the passage of SB100 raises even more questions about Corbett's controversial prison expansion plans. Even the modest reforms contained in SB100 and laid out in the Justice Reinvestment Working Group's recommendations could decrease the prison population by several thousand people. The Justice Reinvestment Working Group estimates that implementing their recommendations will reduce Pennsylvania's prison population by almost 3,000 people over the next five years. Why are we spending millions of dollars to build new prisons when the governor and the secretary of corrections claim that they are shrinking the prison system?

Corbett continues to move forward with new prison construction in Benner Township and Montgomery County. When he canceled a proposed prison in Fayette County upon entering office, Corbett said he wanted to promote industries that "generate wealth, not sorrow." He has the perfect opportunity to do just that. Construction is just beginning on SCI Phoenix I and II, the controversial 4,100-bed expansion on the grounds of SCI Graterford. There is still time for the governor to cancel these projects and show Pennsylvanians that he wants to rein in unnecessary state spending.

The passage of SB100 makes it abundantly clear: Pennsylvania doesn't need new prisons. What's more, Pennsylvanians don't want, and can't afford, new prisons. With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Corbett could cancel the prison construction and make hundreds of millions of dollars available to spend on education, health care, and social services. He could use $685 million to build brighter futures for our children. Instead, the governor chooses prison cells. He chooses sorrow.

Hakim Ali and Layne Mullett are with Decarcerate PA, a coalition of organizations and individuals seeking an end to mass incarceration.

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