Wednesday, June 23, 2010

State Prison Reform Legislation in the House

The State Senate has passed prison reform legislation to reduce the prison population, lower the rate of recidivism and reduce spiraling costs. The bill’s sponsor and other supporters are urging passage in the House.

The author--Republican Senator Stewart Greenleaf of Bucks and Montgomery Counties-- says prison expenditures have gone from $110 million in 1980 to $1.8 billion, while the inmate population has ballooned from 8000 to 51,000. State population has only gone up 4- or 5%, which Greenleaf says shows the system isn't working.

The current annual increase of 2000 inmates means Pennsylvania would have to build a new prison every year at a cost of about $200 million and $60 million a year to maintain. Meanwhile, recidivism is 46% and violent crime continues to go up. The state now spends more on prisons than on higher education, says Greenleaf. While it’s important to be tough on crime, he says it’s also important to be smart on crime.

Other states, says Greenleaf, have enacted reforms that reduce crime, rehabilitate offenders, and save money. New York is reducing its prison population by 1000 inmates per year as violent crime goes down. Virginia and Michigan are housing thousands of Pennsylvania inmates because their reforms have freed up space.

Greenleaf’s legislation would reform parole and sentencing policies to reduce the numbers of non-violent offenders in jail.

Democratic Representative Ronald Waters of Philadelphia is chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. He says African-Americans are about 12- to 13% of the general population but are 45- to 50% of the prison population. Poor people are also over-represented, a category which can cross color lines but includes many people of color. Good attorneys are often out of reach for the poor and minorities. He’s visited inmates who say they were coerced with threats of long sentences if they insisted on their day in court, so they plead for a short sentence, not realizing what an adverse and long-term effect a conviction would have on their lives.

Waters says laws reflecting a “lock them up and throw away the key” philosophy have not made communities safer but have increased prison populations and expenditures disastrously. With 90% of inmates coming out of jail eventually, it makes much more sense, he says, to use resources to help them turn their lives around and become contributing members of society.

Waters says the House will amend Senator Greenleaf’s bills to reflect concerns expressed by district attorneys and hopefully send it back to the Senate. He thinks Governor Rendell will sign the reform legislation.

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