Judges, others laud new Pennsylvania law to lower prison population

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The latest attempt in Harrisburg to reduce the state prison population by changing criminal law is being welcomed by judges and others involved in the criminal justice system.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 100, also known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, into law July 5.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge William R. Carpenter, the administrative judge of that court's criminal division, said the legislation seeks to combine "appropriate punishment with the appropriate treatment. [This legislation is] expanding that theory, which I'm totally in favor of."

The changes the bill enacted include:

• Expanding the eligibility for intermediate punishment, a program for nonviolent offenders convicted of an offense "motivated by the use of or addiction" to drugs and alcohol.

• Establishing as a default that parolees are returned to community corrections centers, rather than state prison, for most parole violations.

• Banning defendants convicted of certain misdemeanors from serving their sentences in state prison.

• Eliminating pre-release into halfway houses for inmates who are within one year of their maximum sentences.

• Requiring reinvestment of any savings from reducing the prison population to create a risk-assessment tool for judges when sentencing defendants, to fund local law enforcement and to give judicial districts an incentive to divert defendants to county jails through programming such as treatment courts.

"Many states have been moving in this general direction -- more intelligent sentencing and supervising [of] offenders" based upon their individual characteristics, Judge Carpenter said.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, the supervising judge of the criminal section of the trial division, said the legislation acknowledges that offenders not serving life sentences are going to re-enter society. The legislation also aims to provide them with tools to reduce their recidivism, Judge Woods-Skipper said.

John E. Wetzel, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said that while many states have enacted legislation to reform criminal law and address their prison populations, Pennsylvania might be the first state in which the vote in both chambers was unanimous.

Pennsylvania residents are not getting what they need or deserve from the criminal justice system when more than 40 percent of offenders return to state prison, Mr. Wetzel said.

Greg Rowe, chief of the Philadelphia district attorney's office's legislation unit and the legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the Legislature didn't prescribe a one-size-fits-all policy.

"They didn't go into the sentencing code and reduce sentences and let people out early for the sake of letting people out early," Mr. Rowe said. Instead, the legislation gives the Department of Corrections flexibility on how to handle people who are already sentenced, he said.

Mr. Wetzel said it was important that the justice reinvestment initiative would fund the development of a risk-based sentencing tool to provide judges a risk assessment on whether a defendant would commit future crimes.

"The better and more information judges have, the better placement they can make," he said.

Many states that make it their default to not return parolees to prison for most violations have found a decrease in recidivism and a decreased crime rate, he added.

Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said eliminating pre-release was a deficit in the bill.

But Mr. Rowe said prosecutors and victims advocates "hated" pre-release because it was not "truth in sentencing" when convicts would get out earlier than their minimum sentence.

legalnews

Amaris Elliott-Engel: aelliott-engel@alm.com or 215-557-2354. For more articles like this: www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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