Bill urged to find new ways to reduce prison population

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Auditor General Jack Wagner, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and others renewed their call Friday for legislation to stem the growth of Pennsylvania's prison population, which is the fastest growing in the nation.

Mr. Greenleaf -- a former Montgomery County prosecutor -- has long supported tackling booming incarceration rates by giving nonviolent offenders alternatives to prison, sticking to minimum sentences and investing in re-entry programs to address recidivism. He is making another bid to get legislative approval for an omnibus sentencing bill this year by noting the changes make economic sense as well.

The state's prison population is five times greater than it was 30 years ago and the price per prisoner has nearly tripled from $11,447 a year in 1980 to $32,059 in 2009, according to data from Mr. Wagner's office. Lately the state's prison population has outpaced all other states (it added 2,122 inmates in 2009 to Florida's 1,527) and the Department of Corrections budget has been forced to keep pace, increasing in cost to about $1.9 billion and helping to balloon the state's estimated $4 billion deficit.

Mr. Greenleaf, the Senate's Judiciary chairman, said other states such as New York and Virginia have been successful in lowering their prison populations by working to keep nonviolent offenders (most of them drug users) out of jail, and thus helping address the bottom line as well.

"If you look at what other states have done, it's not all that dramatic. It's a change in attitude really," Mr. Greenleaf said at a news conference at Carnegie Mellon University. His legislation, Senate Bill 100, is before his committee now, and he plans to call hearings soon with Gov. Tom Corbett's office and others in an attempt to fold it into the state's 2011-12 budget.

They were joined by noted criminologist and CMU professor Alfred Blumstein and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Prison population growth "is the fastest growing component of state expenditures and therefore it's a natural target for cost-containment and for cost reduction," Mr. Blumstein said. "And what's been intriguing to me, in our highly politicized, highly polarized political environment, this is an opportunity for consensus."

The state's prison population has jumped from 41,000 in 2004 to 51,300 today. The state Board of Probation and Parole expects the prison population to hit 58,000 by 2014.

Some 40 percent of the prison population is there for nonviolent offenses, Mr. Wagner said, and keeping them out of the prison system through sentencing reforms could save up to $350 million over four years, partially through halting new prison construction.

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581.


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