'New normal': With crime rates down, Pa. set to close 2 prisons
January 23, 2017 6:34 AM
By Karen Langley / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG — Not too long ago, Pennsylvania couldn’t build prisons fast enough. In one year in the 1990s, the commonwealth opened five new prisons.
The state was not alone. Across the country, the federal and state inmate population quadrupled between 1980 and 2000, federal data show.
Now that trend has slowed, and is even creeping backward. At a time when crime rates have fallen, and public attention has turned to the economic and social costs of such widespread incarceration, many states are trimming their counts of prisoners.
“This is the new normal for state corrections,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said last week.
PG graphic: Several decades of Pa. prison population growth (Click image for larger version)
On Thursday, he is expected to announce which two of the state’s 26 prisons will close later this year. Earlier this month, state officials identified five possible targets — correctional institutions in Pittsburgh and in Mercer, Luzerne, Schuylkill, and Wayne Counties.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration says the closings could save the state as much as $160 million at a time when Pennsylvania faces a budget shortfall projected to surpass $1.5 billion next year under current policies. They say there are enough empty beds at other sites, such as SCI Camp Hill, to accommodate the transfer of thousands of inmates.
Still, the plan has prompted backlash, and more could be looming.
Some legislators, including those with job-rich prisons in their districts, have questioned how the closures are being decided.
And the union representing corrections officers has decried the plan, which would affect hundreds of its members, although state officials say employees will be offered other jobs in the system.
Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, noted in an interview that the department has said its system is at more than 100 percent operational capacity. (The department has said that is an “optimum” number and that exceeding it does not mean the prisons are overcrowded.) “Where are you going to stack the inmates?” Bloom said.
Other states are confronting similar reverse-capacity issues. Texas and New York have closed prisons in recent years, and Michigan last year announced the closing of a prison, citing declining inmate populations and budget pressure. A December report from the Pew Charitable Trusts said that, from 2010 to 2015, 35 states reduced their imprisonment rates, led by California.
Many criminologists and researchers agree that the growth in prison population was a result of policy decisions, such as tough-on-crime laws that mandated stiffer sentences, said Kiminori Nakamura, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland who has worked with Pennsylvania officials. “We became more punitive,” Nakamura said.
John Kramer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing from 1979 to 1998, pointed to Pennsylvania’s passage of mandatory-minimum sentences for certain crimes, as well as an increase in time prisoners typically served before being paroled.
When he arrived at the sentencing commission, Mr. Kramer said, he recalls Pennsylvania having about eight prisons and 8,100 prisoners.
“Those populations, of course, then skyrocketed,” he said.
In 1981, a “rapid influx” of inmates forced the agency, then the Bureau of Correction, to double-cell inmates for the first time in each prison, the corrections commissioner wrote in an annual report.
A 1986 report described “a period of phenomenal growth” in Pennsylvania’s inmate population. In the late 1980s, five state prisons opened their doors. Two more facilities opened in 1992.
In 1993, the Department of Corrections opened five prisons, “in response to the unprecedented growth in offender population,” Corrections Commissioner Joseph Lehman wrote at the time. He said the department was also in the process of building two additional prisons.
In 2004, and again from 2007 until 2013, there were 27 state prisons operating in Pennsylvania, said Amy Worden, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. (SCI Pittsburgh, one of the prisons under consideration for closure, was shut down in 2005 but put back into service in 2007 as the population continued to grow.)
The tide started to turn — slowly — a few years ago. Pennsylvania recorded its highest prison population count, 51,757 inmates, in June 2012, Ms. Worden said. At last count, a few weeks ago, the tally stood at 49,301.
In 2013, the Corbett administration closed prisons in Cambria and Westmoreland Counties, saying that the state would save money by using a more efficient facility and that the growth in prison population had finally halted.
Among the reasons observers cite for the falling inmate numbers are court rulings against mandatory minimum sentences and a package of changes the state made in 2012 in areas such as the treatment of parole violators.
The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the organizers of the hearing Monday, agree that the decades-long growth trend had to change.
“That was not a sustainable or successful criminal justice system,” said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R.-Montgomery, the committee chair. His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Daylin Leach, D.-Montgomery), said prison should be reserved for people who are a danger to themselves or others.
“I’m glad we’re closing two prisons,” Leach said. “I look forward to the day when we can close 10 more.”
Karen Langley: email@example.com, 717-787-2141 or @karen_langley.
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