Rendell's prison plan could lock him up in costly quandary
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The nation's economic crisis has put a damper on most new construction, but there's one area where building is booming like it's 1999 -- prisons.
Pennsylvania's state correctional facilities are at 114 percent of capacity and several construction projects are in the works to meet demands for space. Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed budget includes more than $1.8 billion for the Department of Corrections, a nearly 10 percent increase dedicated mostly to construction and increased staffing.
According to a report released last week by the Pew Center on the States, such spending is folly, especially under budget constraints. The report recommends that states devote more resources to the far-less-costly options of probation and parole, and incarcerate fewer people.
"After an extraordinary, quarter-century expansion of American prisons, one unmistakable policy truth has emerged: We cannot build our way to public safety," the report states.
"[N]ew national and state research shows that we are well past the point of diminishing returns, where more imprisonment will prevent less and less crime. With the costs of imprisonment rising and the benefits falling, our ability to keep communities safe depends more than ever upon our ability to better manage the 5 million offenders on probation and parole."
According to the report, the average spending per inmate per day in Pennsylvania was $97.72 last year -- more than triple the cost from 25 years ago. The number of inmates in the state is expected to rise from 49,000 at the start of this year to nearly 58,000 by the end of 2013.
Compare that to $8.03 per day for parole and $1.83 for probation.
The Rendell budget proposal for fiscal year 2009-2010 also increases funding for the Board of Probation and Parole, which plans to use the money to hire more field agents. But the 8.3 percent increase brings the department's budget to $99.2 million, less than one-eighteenth of Department of Corrections spending.
Even the DOC agrees that bringing down the prison population -- as the Pew report recommends -- is a good idea. But as Mr. Rendell's parole quandary suggests, it isn't easy politically or logistically.
In September, a parolee shot and killed a Philadelphia police officer a month after his release from prison, where he had been serving a sentence for a 1998 robbery and aggravated assault.
After the killing, Mr. Rendell imposed a moratorium on all parole in the state, causing prison populations to spike. He lifted the moratorium for nonviolent offenders in October, then for violent offenders in January.
The 11-member Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is looking at reforming parole guidelines, but legislators might tackle a sweeping reform of their own -- a mandate that repeat violent offenders serve out their maximum sentences. A bill is still in the drafting stages, but Mr. Rendell already has voiced support for such a measure.
While getting tougher on violent offenders -- classified as people convicted of murder, manslaughter, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, theft or arson -- policymakers are looking at ways to get nonviolent offenders out from behind bars.
Acts 81-84, signed by Mr. Rendell in September, create new avenues for shorter or alternative sentences -- including an expansion of the therapy-driven state intermediate punishment program. But DOC estimates that this will merely slow the prison population growth rate.
Department statistics show a sharp rise in the number of nonviolent offenders in the prisons. In 2008 nonviolent offenders comprised 41 percent of the prison population, with 44 percent classified as violent (the rest are parole violators). In 2002, it was 51 percent violent, 30 percent nonviolent.
DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton pointed to tougher sentences -- including mandatory minimums -- for gun and drug convictions as contributors to the rise of nonviolent prisoners. For example, a first-time conviction for trafficking more than 10 grams of cocaine carries a mandatory three-year minimum sentence.
Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants to take a hard look at mandatory minimums, but it's difficult to gain support from legislators wary of being labeled as soft on crime.
"We have all these stupid mandatories," Mr. Caltagirone said. "It's a knee-jerk reaction: 'We're going to get all the bad guys off the street.' ...
"The violent offenders -- repeat, serious offenders -- absolutely we need to lock them up. But do we need to lock up everybody?"
Allegheny County Judge John A. Zottola said the overstretched prison system does play a role in his sentences.
"You're always thinking in the back of your mind that there's an issue for overcrowding," Judge Zottola said. "You're often looking at alternatives to putting people in jail -- if it keeps the public safe."
As the Pew report points out, imprisonment alternatives are often more effective than a prison sentence, while being less expensive to the public. A prime example is diversionary courts.
Allegheny County has specialized courts for DUI, drugs, prostitution and people with mental illnesses, and administrators plan to begin a veterans' court this year.
The diversionary courts place offenders on probation and require regular court appearances to make sure the participants are following prescribed plans.
Several studies have shown that the diversionary programs reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars by keeping offenders out of jail or prison.
Judge Zottola, who presides over mental health court and said he expects to do the same for veterans' court, said aside from the taxpayer benefit, alternative courts are "the right thing to do in terms of helping people and changing lives."
Those defendants, as well as ones who are re-entering the community from jail or prison, are under the supervision of the Board of Probation and Parole.
Larry Ludwig, Pittsburgh district director for the board, oversees about 70 agents and 4,000 cases in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. In the process of filling a few open agent positions, Mr. Ludwig said he's happy to be in one of few state agencies with the ability to hire.
"We've had the governor's cooperation because of the job we have and the fact that we tend to reduce the prison population," Mr. Ludwig said.
Mr. Rendell employed Temple University professor John Goldkamp to conduct a review of parole procedures during the moratorium, and Mr. Ludwig said he's in the process of implementing Mr. Goldkamp's recommendations.
A key step is to target the highest risk violent offenders as they leave prison and commit the most resources to overseeing them as they make the transition. Mr. Ludwig said group therapy sessions form part of the new "violence prevention booster."
Parole board agents specialize in certain types of cases -- drugs, sex offenses, etc. -- and each offender's level of supervision is based on a "risk score."
Mr. Ludwig said when there's a misstep like a failed drug test, offenders are sanctioned. Repeat or serious problems could get an offender sent to a halfway house like the Renewal Center, Downtown, or back to prison.
According to the Board's statistics, 21 percent of parolees committed another crime or parole violations during their first year on parole in 2007, which was down from 28 percent in 2003. The parole recidivism rate in an offender's first three years is 49 percent.
Those offenders often return to one of the state's 26 prisons.
Ms. McNaughton said that in addition to building more residential units at existing prisons, there are plans for a new prison next to SCI Rockview in Centre County, two new prisons to replace the current SCI Graterford in Montgomery County, and a new prison at an undetermined site in Fayette County.
The combined taxpayer price tag for the four projects: $800 million.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 10, 2009) In 2007, 21 percent of first-year parolees in Pennsylvania were returned to prison for committing crimes or parole violations. This story as originally published Mar. 8, 2009 incorrectly stated that all of those offenders committed new crimes.
First Published March 8, 2009 12:00 am