Pennsylvania's prison population up slightly

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HARRISBURG -- The state inmate population ticked up slightly in 2013 after falling the previous year.

The one-year increase of 328 inmates -- a growth of 0.6 percent in the total population -- can largely be attributed to an increase in parole violators returning to the system, said Bret Bucklen, director of the office of planning, research & statistics at the Department of Corrections. Such readmissions climbed 15 percent from the previous year, when the department had expected them to remain level, he said.

The growth also relates to the elimination, under a 2012 sentencing reform law, of a program through which prisoners could live in the community before receiving parole, Mr. Bucklen said.

"That switch between those two populations is ultimately expected to reduce our population, but in the short run, because we had so many pre-release cases in the community corrections centers, bringing them back created a short-term increase in the prisons," he said.

The Corbett administration issued a press release Monday announcing the “slowest growth in inmate population since 1971” and “smallest increase for the 24 years preceding this administration.”

Statistics from the Department of Corrections show several yearly increases since 1971 that were smaller than in 2013: 71 additional inmates in 1972, 304 inmates in 1973, 186 inmates in 1976, 56 inmates in 1977, 7 inmates in 1999, 148 inmates in 2004 and 317 inmates in 2011. The prison population shrank in 1979, 2010 and 2012, according to the figures.

Administration representatives said they were referring instead to a comparison by governor of the average annual change in inmate population over the course of an administration. Mr. Corbett has overseen a smaller average annual increase, according to the administration, than any executive since Gov. Raymond Shafer, who presided over a decline in inmates between 1967 and 1971.

The state population had declined by 454 inmates in 2012, so the increase last year still left the December 2013 total -- 51,512 inmates -- smaller than December 2011. The fluctuations of the last several years are a break from decades of rapidly expanding Pennsylvania prison populations. The Department of Corrections housed 9,420 people at the end of 1981, 23,405 people at the end of 1991, 37,995 people at the end of 2001 and 51,638 people at the end of 2011.

In 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a package of sentencing reforms designed to reduce state prison populations by, in part, more precisely targeting which inmates are sent to prison and which to halfway houses, reducing inefficiencies in the parole system and offering more alternative punishments. At the time, the Department of Corrections projected the changes would leave it housing 2,565 fewer inmates in June 2017 than it would have otherwise.

Sherry Tate, a spokeswoman for the Board of Probation and Parole, said in an email that the parole population has grown by approximately 3,100 people since the enactment of the 2012 reforms. The number of people committing technical parole violations has increased while remaining steady as a percentage of the parole population, she said.

In his budget plan last week, Mr. Corbett proposed an increase of $78.3 million for state prisons, of which $72.3 million is needed for contractual salary and benefit increases, according to the administration.


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.

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