HARRISBURG -- Some Senate and House members want to enact new alternative sentences for non-violent convicts, saying they would decrease overcrowded state prisons and lighten the financial burden on the state.
"Pennsylvania is still in the stone ages when you talk about prison reform," Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, D-Philadelphia, said. "The appetite for prison reform is now."
The reforms, which would require several new pieces of legislation, are backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Ronald Waters, D-Philadelphia.
Measures include having non-violent prisoners who are facing short, minimum sentences serve their time at community-based corrections centers instead of a state prison. Alternative incarceration programs would also be sought for lesser offenses, such as drug-related crimes and technical parole violations.
Mr. Greenleaf said nearly half of the state's prisoners are non-violent offenders. He said the state prison population has skyrocketed from about 8,000 in 1980 to more than 51,000 now. The state's prison population was temporarily reduced recently when 2,000 prisoners were sent to prisons in Virginia and Michigan, but the number continues to rise.
"We've been tough on crime, but we haven't been smart on crime," Mr. Greenleaf said.
Pennsylvania spends more on corrections than 44 other states, according to Mr. Waters, who is sponsoring three bills aiming to reform sentencing.
The state's Department of Corrections budget is now approaching $2 billion a year, more than 55 times what it was nearly 40 years ago, according to Mr. Waters' figures.
Mr. Greenleaf said if the prison population continues to increase at the current rate, Pennsylvania may have to build a new prison every year, at the cost of more than $200 million per prison. Three new prisons are already scheduled to be built by 2014, and they will be immediately filled if trends continue. They will be in Centre, Montgomery and Fayette counties.
Mr. Greenleaf said that one factor causing costs to rise is a category called "technical parole violators," people who are re-incarcerated for violations such as breaking curfew or failing to report to a parole officer. In 2008, 3,000 of these technical violators were re-incarcerated.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the department supports the new measures.
"We've been tough on crime for a long time but have been kind of painting these offenders under a broad brush," Ms. McNaughton said. "Not everybody needs to be separated from society . . . What they need is treatment."
Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marsico, president of the state District Attorneys Association, said alternative programs should be used, but the state needs to tread carefully with any changes to the criminal system.
"The overwhelming majority of inmates in the state correctional system are there for a reason," Mr. Marsico said. "While their current offense may be non-violent, they may have a history of violence or a history of repeat offenses."
He said the state could see even higher costs if offenders in the alternative programs continue to commit crimes. "Even if they commit non-violent offenses, that's a huge cost, not only to their victims but also taxpayers down the road."
Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would like to see the prison reform bills voted on by the time the new state budget is enacted this summer and legislators then recess.
The Senate has already approved three of the prison reform bills. The House Judiciary Committee met today to discuss them and suggested that amendments be made, including a provision allowing pregnant convicts to not be handcuffed while delivering children. Final committee action is expected next week.
Evan Trowbridge is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.