Pennsylvania eyes overhaul of parole process

Halfway houses a focus of program

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HARRISBURG -- State officials are working to streamline parole interviews and focus halfway house rehabilitation on their parolees as they implement a law designed to save millions of dollars in corrections spending.

Efficiency measures and program overhauls in the state's penitentiary system are expected to save $253 million over five years, according to numbers from the Senate Republican Caucus.

One goal of the program is to help prisoners integrate into communities. Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the bill's prime sponsor, said the prison return rate is 44 percent, and that focusing programs and spending on parolees would help lower that rate.

"It's a good investment in our communities because it is a public safety issue and a good way to save the state money," said Mr. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said Pennsylvanians will first witness the transformation of the Community Corrections Centers and Community Corrections Facilities.

More commonly referred to as "halfway houses," these facilities will house only parolees, she said, because a decades-old practice known as pre-release will no longer be an option for inmates as of July 1, 2013, according to the law.

Halfway houses traditionally held both pre-release and paroled inmates, but that caused confusion in the halfway houses because each group had different requirements they had to meet from the state based on their release status, said Gregg Warner, counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Paroled inmates have served their minimum sentence or longer, while pre-release inmates have not reached that minimum date. Inmates whose minimum sentence date falls on or before May 31, 2013, have been notified that they may get a pre-release date to enter the halfway houses, Ms. Bensinger said.

"After that, they will have to earn parole at their minimum sentence," she said.

The state also is working on interviewing more inmates for parole. Mr. Warner said the more inmates are paroled at their minimum sentence, the less money the state spends while they remain in prison.

Analysts from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, who advised lawmakers on the bill, recommended increasing the number of parole interviews held each month by 20 percent by 2015. Efficiency measures, such as converting to electronic systems, will help the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole see more inmates, spokesman Leo Dunn said.

"We are right in the middle of a major review of the entire parole process to streamline it," Mr. Dunn said. "We are looking at inefficiencies that delay decision-making in parole. We're getting rid of parts of the process that don't make sense or are redundant, and not redundant for public safety purposes."

There are 2,211 inmates on pre-release of the 4,302 inmates in Pennsylvania halfway house system, Ms. Bensinger said. She estimates that 250 inmates on pre-release move from the state correctional institution to the halfway houses each month.

Mr. Greenleaf said making the halfway house exclusively for inmates on parole would help make communities safer.

"We are making sure that they don't commit another crime by giving them the time they need to correct whatever problems they're having before going into the community," he said.

The halfway houses are ready to make the change, said Jim Antal, director of Recovery House Pittsburgh.

"Having the department send out more parolees can only be a plus. They can work, go to meetings, learn their way of life, integrate into the community ... to have more of those people would certainly be a plus," Mr. Antal said.

electionspa - state

Clara Ritger is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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