Emblematic of that philosophical shift, impelled in no small part by the parlous economy, is legislation signed last month by Gov. Corbett. The measures mandated by the Criminal Justice Reform Act are projected to lower Pennsylvania's prison population by as many as 4,000 inmates over four years and to save up to $370 million in five years.
The new law is aimed at low-risk, nonviolent offenders, whose crimes typically include drug offenses, theft, or receiving stolen property. It calls for an increase in prison alternatives for them, such as house arrest and intensive parole supervision. It allows parolees who commit minor violations to serve any additional time at halfway houses, rather than landing back behind bars.
But the act's major importance is its focus on rehabilitation, increasing drug and alcohol treatment, and offering educational and vocational programs into which offenders can be ordered.
"It's really a change in attitude," said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), a sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "If you don't try to rehabilitate someone, they're going to come back."
That kind of thinking evokes corrections philosophy in the 1960s and '70s, when rehabilitation became an important goal, and treatment programs sprouted up across the state and nation. But the crack epidemic and upsurges in violent crime led to a shift toward mandatory minimum sentences, tougher parole standards, and more time behind bars.
Pennsylvania is among a growing number of states trying to reduce prison costs. In New Jersey, with 20,544 inmates in 13 state prisons and a $976 million corrections budget, Gov. Christie last month signed a measure mandating that more nonviolent drug offenders receive treatment rather than incarceration.
John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections, said the state cannot afford to keep building prisons. The better idea, he said, is to help nonviolent offenders readjust to society and stay out of trouble, reducing a recidivism rate that hovers around 44 percent for the general state-prison population.
Greenleaf said legislation now must be passed that would provide funding for many of the measures in the Criminal Justice Reform Act.
After trying for years to get legislators to reconsider the state's slam-the-cell-door posture, prison reformists now are guardedly optimistic that the new law will be the catalyst for continued change.
"It's moving in the right direction," said Ann Schwartzman, policy director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an organization that advocates for inmates and their families.
Angus Love, a longtime prison-reform advocate who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Center City, said the major flaw in the new law was its elimination of early release for prisoners who have shown good behavior behind bars.
Even so, he said, he is pleased with other aspects of the legislation and, particularly, the support it received from a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature. "That in itself," Love said, "is a significant triumph."
State Rep. Ronald Marsico (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was initially concerned about the impact on public safety of measures to reduce the prison population.
But he said his worries were assuaged when a Texas lawmaker visited Harrisburg and talked about how Texas, never known for its leniency on crime, effectively moved away from building new prisons and toward community-treatment programs.
Marsico concluded that "we're not letting these people out before they should be let out. We're just being fiscally smart about this."
The new law also allows the redirecting of some state inmates to county jails, where the stays are generally less than two years. But with about 36,000 inmates statewide, county facilities often are perennially overcrowded.
"I can't take a large influx of state residents," said William F. Plantier, Bucks County's director of corrections.
Still, he called the new law "an enlightened approach" to corrections and said he was buoyed by the effort to move away from the notion that more prisons were the only way to ensure public safety.
The reality, Plantier said, is that "you just can't keep on locking up everyone."
Contact Emilie Lounsberry