Corbett signs law to cut Pa. prison population

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HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett on Thursday signed into law the second half of a sentencing reform package designed to stem decades of rising prison populations and costs.

As a whole, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative legislation aims to reduce state prison populations through a broad array of changes: more precisely targeting which inmates are sent to prison and which to halfway houses, reducing inefficiencies in the parole system, offering alternative punishments to more inmates. The legislation signed Thursday allows a portion of the savings generated by those changes to be spent on initiatives aimed at further stopping crime and preventing released inmates from returning to prison.

"The answer isn't always to build bigger prisons," Mr. Corbett said. "Sometimes the answer lies in smarter solutions that help us build fewer prisons and better communities."

The Department of Corrections estimates its system will house 2,565 fewer inmates by the end of June 2017 than it would have without the changes. Such a reduction would lower costs by $253 million. The agency expects about $132 million will be spent on grants and other expenses of the program, leaving the state with a projected savings of $120 million from what it otherwise would have spent over the next five years.

"Ninety dollars for every prisoner every day is a lot of money," Mr. Corbett said. "The idea is to reduce the population and make a significant reduction in the population over a long period of time."

Initiatives funded by the savings include services for victims, online training for police and improvement of county probation systems.

Both the initial legislation, which became law this summer, and the newly signed bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

The state prison population was 51,372 at the end of September, up from 36,810 at the end of 2000 and 8,200 in 1980. In the three months since the first part of the changes took effect, the population has declined by 385 inmates, said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

Many of the changes aim to reduce the number of prisoners who return after their release. By allowing certain prisoners to serve in county institutions, Mr. Corbett said, the legislation would give counties a chance to more closely monitor people who will return to their streets and families a chance to maintain ties.

The officials pointed to a practical effect. "When you get people off the track of committing crime, that saves money long-term," Mr. Wetzel said.

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