Corbett signs prison-reform plan into law

Posted: October 26, 2012

HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett signed into law Thursday sweeping prison-reform legislation aimed at reducing recidivism and lowering the skyrocketing cost of housing the state's inmates.

"It's about time we started thinking a little smarter about how we incarcerate people," Corbett said at a news conference. "The answer isn't always building new prisons."

At the heart of the plan, which received bipartisan support in the legislature, is an effort to move inmates out of state prisons where costs are the highest and to help them become productive members of society.

Over the past 30 years, prison costs have tripled, and the number of inmates has ballooned from 10,000 to 51,000, according to state figures. It now costs taxpayers an average of $34,000 a year to house an inmate in one of the 26 state prisons.

Under the law, counties have the option to house prisoners who normally would go to state prisons. Counties such as Philadelphia with overcrowded jails could opt out, but upstate counties such as Columbia, with empty beds, might take on prisoners from other counties, Corbett said.

A companion bill that became law last spring expands the use of alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders, keeping them in the communities while providing them services, such as outpatient treatment for drug addiction.

In addition, parolees who commit so-called technical violations - such as failing to check in with their parole officers - will not immediately be sent back to prison.

The various initiatives are projected to save taxpayers $100 million over the first five years.

The savings are to be reinvested in a wide array of new programs and services: specialty courts for veterans and the mentally ill, for instance, providing more services to help released inmates make the transition outside the prison walls, and expanding victims' services.

The state corrections system now accounts for nearly $2 billion of the state's $27 billion budget, and the recidivism rate among prisoners is climbing.

An estimated 43 percent of those paroled will commit new offenses, said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who attended the bill signing.

"We can be tough on crime, but we have to be smart on crime," said Greenleaf, who has been working on prison reform issues for many years.

Corbett also signed nine other crime-related pieces of legislation, among them bills to toughen penalties for illegal gun sales, establish criminal penalties for minors who send sexually explicit images to others, and make it a crime to recruit gang members.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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