HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania state prisons housed 454 fewer inmates at the end of 2012 than they did one year earlier, the largest decrease and only the third yearly population decline in the past 40 years.
State corrections officials attribute the drop to several factors: fewer people sent to prison; more parole interviews taking place as scheduled; and quicker processing for inmates with short minimum sentences so they can complete requirements in time for release.
"It's showing that we're moving in the right direction," said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. "We are excited by this because for many years we had such a constant increase."
Corrections has consumed more state dollars in recent decades as both the prison population and the cost of keeping an inmate have ballooned. State officials say the average annual tab for housing a prisoner is now $34,700.
Until last year, the only other declines in prison population since 1971 occurred between 1978 and 1979, when the inmate rolls shrank by 21, and between 2009 and 2010, when it dropped by 166. Officials with the agency, which is responsible for state prisoners, said it ended 2012 with 51,184 inmates.
By the numbers
Number of inmates in state prisons in 2012.
Decrease in inmates from 2011.
Annual cost of housing a prisoner in a state facility.
Annual cost, in billions, to house the state's prisoners.
As the number of state prisoners dropped last year, the parole rolls swelled by more than 1,800. The number of parolees supervised by the state Board of Probation and Parole rose from 35,083 in November 2011 to 36,961 one year later, according to Leo Dunn, a spokesman for the board. It typically costs a little more than $3,000 a year to keep someone on parole, he said.
Officials with the Department of Corrections said the percentage of parole cases to receive a hearing on schedule increased from 58 percent in June 2012 to 83 percent in December.
Corrections and parole officials worked together to make the process more efficient, Ms. McNaughton said. Previously, inmates who had not completed required programming still received parole hearings when the date of their minimum sentence approached. Now, only inmates done with their programming are scheduled for hearings.
Meanwhile, the courts sent 154 fewer defendants to prison in 2012, down from 10,964 court commitments in 2011.
The process for classifying newly arrived inmates -- a battery of psychological, medical, educational and other testing -- has been accelerated for prisoners with a minimum sentence of less than one year. Where those inmates previously had been classified alongside longer-sentenced prisoners, they now are separated so they can complete prison requirements in time to qualify for parole at the end of their minimum sentence.
William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for a humane correctional system, applauded the news but said the prison population could shrink far more.
"We are delighted to see the population has declined, even if it's by fewer than 1 percent of the population," he said. "We'd like to see a much larger decrease and think that public safety could be maintained even if there were a decrease that was tenfold the size of what we see right now."
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 1-717-787-2141.