Pa. Senate sends corrections bill to Corbett
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A bill heading to the governor's desk aims to change a corrections system that critics say treats violent and nonviolent criminals the same.
Passed unanimously by the state Senate Monday night, the bill expands the use of alternative sentencing, stops sentencing nonviolent offenders to state prisons and lessens the punishment for technical parole violations, among other efforts to create sentences that are less punitive and more rehabilitative. Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign the bill into law once it reaches his desk.
The Council of State Governments, a national nonprofit that helped develop the bill, estimates the changes contained in the bill will save the state corrections system roughly $351 million over the next five years -- money that can in part be reinvested into grants to local law enforcement and probation, parole and victims' services, Mr. Corbett said.
The law would counteract an overcrowded prison system that gives nonviolent offenders longer sentences than they need, said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who introduced the bill.
Pennsylvania's prison population has increased roughly 500 percent since 1980, he said, with violent offenders accounting for only 2 percent of that increase over the past 10 years. Many nonviolent offenders are kept in prison past their minimum sentence because the state needs extra time to process them, he added.
"Most of this overcrowding is caused by people who are not even a violent threat to the community," said Mr. Greenleaf, the Judiciary Committee chairman. "We've just been wasting all this money. We've been tough on crime without being smart on crime."
To keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, the bill will expand the use of alternative sentencing programs, such as the State Intermediate Punishment, in which part of the sentence is served in a therapeutic community and part in outpatient treatment. The law would also send technical parole violators to community correction centers rather than prisons.
John Wetzel, the Department of Corrections secretary, said that when his department can stop spending money to keep nonviolent offenders in prison, it can improve prisoner re-entry programs instead.
"This law allows us to expend resources in the right place," he said, adding that his department will be able to implement the law fully by July 1, 2013.
The bill's overhaul of the probation system is based in part on a Hawaiian program called Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, in which parolees are tested for drug use and punished for failing tests or skipping probation meetings. The program aims to decrease drug use while saving taxpayer money.
First Published June 27, 2012 12:00 am