HARRISBURG -- Faced with a serious overpopulation of its prisons and now the need to ship inmates to other states, state legislators may consider easing some harsh sentencing guidelines so that nonviolent offenders aren't automatically sent to prison for lengthy terms.
State Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said judges should be given more latitude in deciding on sentences for minor offenses -- leeway they don't have now due to mandatory sentencing laws approved 10 or 20 years ago in the heyday of "lock 'em up, throw away the key" thinking.
"We are throwing some prisoners, including many from the inner city, into the pit for small offenses, and they don't get help for their problems," he said at a recent Judiciary Committee meeting, where one interested observer was outgoing state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side. He's leaving the Legislature for his new job as a Common Pleas judge in Allegheny County.
One new tool to help reduce prison overcrowding, said state Corrections Department Deputy Secretary William Sprenkle, would be to allow any prisoner with eight months left on his or her sentence to serve the time at a pre-release center or halfway house.
"Short-time offenders are clogging up our prison system," he said.
There also are rules involving drug offenses, such as a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing as little as two grams of cocaine within 2,500 feet of a school, Mr. Caltagirone said. Perhaps that could be adjusted, he said, such as by reducing the distance from a school or raising the amount of the drug a person possesses before a prison term is mandated. Persons convicted of having small amounts of cocaine and who are not seen as a violent threat to the community could perhaps serve their sentence in a halfway house instead of adding to the prison population.
Some lawmakers fear that worsening overcrowding could lead to prison riots or federal lawsuits against the state. But obviously there are risks with expanding parole, both political and public safety-related. No legislator wants to be seen as "soft on crime" if he or she votes to let more convicted criminals get out on parole, even if they are still monitored via ankle bracelets and parole officers.
And no matter how careful state officials are in classifying a parolee as "nonviolent," it's almost impossible to be right 100 percent of the time, Mr. Caltagirone admitted. The population of the state's 27 prisons is now more than 51,000 and growing, compared to capacity of 43,000, and one reason for that was a horrible event that happened in Philadelphia two years ago.
A prisoner with two years left on his sentence was paroled after 10 years. A few weeks later he killed a Philadelphia policeman, outraging the police and public. Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, imposed a moratorium on all paroles for a few months, causing the prison population to rise by 3,000.
Mr. Sprenkle said Pennsylvania will soon begin shipping 2,000 inmates to prisons in two other states, Michigan and Virginia. Half of them will leave in February and the other 1,000 will be moved in March and April. Michigan and Virginia will supply the transportation.
Rep. Ron Waters, D-Philadelphia, expressed concern that such a move will make it harder for families to visit inmates. Mr. Sprenkle said the inmates going out of state will be those who get only one or two visitors per month.
He also said that "videoconferencing" facilities will be set up at eight prisons around Pennsylvania, where family members can go to see and talk via video to the inmates moved to Virginia and Michigan. He said one state corrections official will be present at each of the two out-of-state prisons to make sure the inmates are treated correctly.
The cost of housing the 2,000 inmates in those other states is actually less than what it costs in Pennsylvania, Mr. Sprenkle said. It costs $69 per day per inmate in Pennsylvania's prisons, but Corrections is paying Virginia and Michigan $62 per day per inmate, or about $45 million per year.
The Corrections Department is hoping the prisoners can begin returning to Pennsylvania within three years, but that will depend on how quickly Pennsylvania builds four new prisons. Officials had hoped a new 2,000-inmate prison in Centre County would be under way by now. The new goal is to break ground by summer.
Mr. Sprenkle said he hopes the new $200 million prison will be open by summer of 2012.
Two more new prisons will be built near the current SCI Graterford in suburban Philadelphia, which is old and will be mothballed. Construction at Graterford could possibly start by late 2010 and take two to three years to finish.
The fourth new prison will be built in Fayette County, but a site hasn't been found yet. Also, officials plan to use a prison near Waynesburg, which has been closed for several years, to house 500 inmates who need treatment for drug or alcohol problems.
The new-prison construction bids hit a setback recently, when all the interested companies submitted bids that were higher than expected. The prisons may have to be redesigned to lower the cost.
Mr. Sprenkle said that despite that bidding problem, he still thinks construction can begin this summer on the new Centre County prison.
Since each new prison will hold 2,000 inmates, and reopened Waynesburg will hold 500, the state's overall prison capacity will rise by 8,500 once all are operating. But that probably won't be until 2014 or 2015, and with the prison population constantly rising, it could top 55,000 by then.
Several other smaller projects, including turning some unused office space or recreation rooms at prisons into beds for inmates, are also being used to reduce crowding. But prison officials would like to have the option of sending nonviolent inmates convicted of lesser crimes to halfway houses to free up more cells.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254. First Published January 2, 2010 5:00 AM