More efficient prison system will save money
Pennsylvania's prison system has imprisoned state taxpayers as well as inmates over the last several decades. For years it has been the fastest growing part of state government and the state budget.
One of the bright spots in Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal this year is a proposal to put the brakes on prison spending. He proposed spending of $1.87 billion on prisons, a $10 million reduction from the $1.88 billion for the current fiscal year.
As explained this week by corrections Secretary John Wetzel at the Pennsylvania Press Club in Harrisburg, the objective is not just blithely cut costs. The best ways to make the system more efficient and less costly happen to coincide with better rehabilitation of inmates. The department, he said, has entered a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council of State Governments for a comprehensive review of the department's procedures and services.
The system itself, rather than crime alone, drives costs, Mr. Wetzel said. Inefficiencies in the system, he said, keep about 1,900 inmates per year in prison when they safely could be released on parole. Since it costs taxpayers about $32,000 per inmate per year, parole for eligible inmates alone would save nearly $61 million a year.
Mr. Wetzel also noted that the state system is designed primarily to deal with long-term dangerous offenders, but that the majority of the prison population no longer fits that description.
About a third of inmates who enter state prison each year already have spent an average of six months in county prisons, and have less than a year remaining on their sentences. But because of a lack of capacity for parole hearings, many serve time beyond their minimum sentences - an average of about 200 days - driving up costs.
Mr. Wetzel has established specialized housing units to try to reduce the backlog and it has begun to do so, he said.
The Legislature should help to drive down costs by increasing the Parole Board's capacity from 1,800 hearings per month to meet the demand for 2,400 hearings. That would result in more non-violent offenders serving minimum sentences.
A more efficient system, the secretary said, also would help to reduce another major cost driver - recidivism. The rate of inmates returning to prison after release steadily has declined due to greater use of community-based post-release programs, but it still is too high at 44 percent.
Lawmakers should be open to helping Mr. Wetzel effect changes that are good for taxpayers and inmates re-entering society.