HARRISBURG -- The corrections overhaul plan endorsed by Gov. Tom Corbett aims to curb future spending in part by more precisely defining which inmates are sent to halfway houses and which are sent to prisons.
State spending on corrections has grown dramatically in recent decades, and state officials have spent recent months working with the Council of State Governments, a national nonprofit research organization, to identify ways to improve the system's efficiency and effectiveness.
In a presentation last week, analysts from the council said the programs required of state prison inmates are often too lengthy for people with short minimum sentences to be considered for parole in a timely manner. This prolongs the expense of housing them and cuts into the time they can be supervised by a parole officer after their release.
Under the plan, people convicted of low-level misdemeanors, such as drunken driving and receiving stolen property, would be eligible only for sanctions other than state prison, such as incarceration at the county level or probation. Counties would be encouraged through state funding to expand the capacity in their jails for inmates with minimum sentences shorter than one year.
Currently, one-third of inmates arrive in prison with less than a year remaining in their minimum sentence, and they stay an average of 200 days beyond that date, according to the Council of State Governments report.
"The prisons just aren't typically designed for offenders with shorter sentences," said Marshall Clement, the division director of state initiatives at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Together, the analysts project the changes for low-level misdemeanor convictions and other inmates with short minimum sentences could reduce future spending by more than $168 million over the next five years.
Mr. Corbett said last week that he hopes legislators will send him the proposals by the end of June. After the presentation, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the concerns raised about the current system will come as no surprise to lawmakers.
"This is all kind of matter-of-fact stuff," Mr. Wetzel said. "All this stuff is response to specific problems that have been identified forever."
Although the group of Pennsylvania officials who have worked with the analysts agreed legislators should move forward with the recommendations, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said he wanted to know more about the state prisoners convicted of low-level misdemeanors. Mr. Marsico later said he wants to make sure that sentencing those inmates to a facility with a lesser level of supervision would not create a public safety risk.
A spokeswoman for the state corrections department said officials are compiling information about the low-level misdemeanors but could not yet say how many such inmates are housed in state prison.
Significant savings also would come from housing more inmates approved for parole, and those who commit technical violations of their parole, in halfway houses instead of state prison. At the end of January, the state prisons housed 2,339 inmates already approved for parole, according to the report. About two-thirds of those inmates remained in prison because they did not have an acceptable housing plan, while others had not paid into a compensation fund for crime victims.
The state spends $77 million each year to house inmates approved for parole, the analysts reported.
To reduce this spending, the plan calls for the state to redesign its halfway houses as residences for people transitioning to parole and those who have committed technical violations while on parole. The most dangerous inmates could still be returned to prison for violating their parole.
This would make room in the halfway houses in part by closing them to people who have not been approved for parole, a group that occupies nearly half the halfway house beds statewide, the analysts said.
By reducing the number of inmates who remain in prison after parole approval, cutting the time spent there by parole violators and redesigning the halfway houses, the analysts project the state could save more than $173 million over five years.
The report also projects saving nearly $9 million over five years by increasing the proportion of eligible inmates who receive parole hearings.
While the plan calls for saving most of the reduced costs, about $87 million would be redirected into public safety measures such as grants to local police departments and statewide initiatives for police training and data systems. It also would increase funding for services to victims of crime.state
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. First Published May 28, 2012 12:00 AM