Criminal Justice

Budget Solution of the Week: Corrections Reform

JANUARY 13, 2017

The Department of Corrections (DOC) recently announced its intentions to close two state prisons and reduce capacity at community corrections facilities (halfway houses). These decisions will cut state incarceration costs—an amount now north of $2 billion—without jeopardizing public safety.

That's a big win for taxpayers and an important move towards redesigning state government to avoid new taxes.

Unsurprisingly, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association is highlighting the potential for job losses and overcrowding. But these concerns are weak justifications for saddling taxpayers with the costs of two unnecessary prison facilities

Why? The DOC has already promised to move all displaced employees to another position within the department. As for overcrowding, the changes will bring “emergency capacity” up to 92 percent, which isn’t ideal, according to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, but it also doesn’t constitute a crisis.

Lawmakers can ensure the prison population continues to responsibly decline by adopting the reforms laid out in our policy brief, Embracing Innovation in State Government:

  • Ensure individuals are released when they’re eligible for parole. Too often prisoners are kept beyond their minimum sentence without good reason. This additional time in prison costs taxpayers an estimated $69 million a year.
  • Base sentences on cost-effective recidivism-reducing sanctions. Judges don’t have access to the pertinent information needed to impose sentences most likely to reduce recidivism. If lawmakers give judges the tools needed to hand down effective sentences, they will be in a better position to move less dangerous offenders out of prison.
  • Avoid lengthy prison terms for minor probation and parole violations. According to the Independent Fiscal Office, housing an inmate costs $44,000 more than supervising the average parolee. Ensuring “swift and predictable” sanctions for probation and parole violators can keep people out of prison and drive down costs.
  • Properly utilize community correction facilities. DOC is already pursuing this course of action. According to Sec. Wetzel, community correction facilities have not been “yielding satisfactory outcomes.” This is why DOC is cutting facility capacity. Under the department’s plan, people who would normally be sent to these facilities would be supervised by a parole agent at home.

These reforms stem from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Working Group, which seeks to build on the landmark reforms passed in 2012. These reforms helped reduce the inmate population by 850 in 2015the largest one-year decline in 40 years.

Reducing overtime pay and merging the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole with the Department of Corrections are two additional ideas not included in our report but worth pursuing. DOC is in the process of addressing the former by filling vacant positions, conducting a staffing analysis to determine the optimal number of employees, and of course closing down two prison facilities.

Senator Stewart Greenleaf introduced the latter reform last session. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis, but it unfortunately died in the House. According to the Wolf Administration’s conservative estimate, the merger would save $10 million in the first year of implementation.

By adopting the reforms above, lawmakers can adequately keep Pennsylvanians safe, protect their wallets, and improve the state's unacceptable financial position.

posted by BOB DICK | 09:38 AM | Comments

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Effort Gutted

OCTOBER 7, 2016

North Philadelphian Carol Johnson* saved $2,000 from her pension checks by storing the money in an upstairs bedroom. One day, the 87 year old's savings vanished in a matter of minutes—taken by law enforcement after Carol’s husband Kevin* was found with two marijuana joints in their home.

Carol was never charged with a crime, but it didn’t matter. Under Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws, cash, cars, and even homes can be forfeited without a hearing. As opposed to most legal proceedings, civil asset forfeiture turns justice on its head, forcing property owners to prove their innocence and that their property itself is innocent. It’s a system in desperate need of reform.

SB 869, sponsored by Senators Mike Folmer and Anthony Williams was designed to stop the abuse of this practice by requiring a conviction before a person’s property can be seized. Unfortunately, the bill was gutted in the Senate Judiciary committee last week. The new bill language makes a few procedural changes to the process, but it continues to allow confiscation without a conviction. That’s why we've withdrawn our support of the bill along with the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

No one should have their property taken away from them because of a crime they didn’t commit. The new version of SB 869 does nothing to prevent this injustice.

*Names have been changed to protect of privacy.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 00:15 PM | Comments

2012 Corrections Reform Still Paying Off

JANUARY 20, 2016

Pennsylvania Corrections Spending

Yesterday, Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel announced that Pennsylvania’s prison population declined last year by the largest amount since 1971. The number of imates declined by 850 in 2015, beating the previous record of 756 in 2014, which we wrote about last year.

And this success isn’t just the result of releasing criminals from prison. We’ve also seen a reduction in the recidivism rate—that is, fewer individuals are coming back to prison after being released.

This success story stems in no small part from corrections reform passed by the General Assembly in 2012. The Commonwealth Foundation worked closely with a transpartisan coalition, which included the late Democratic Gov. George Leader's family, the ACLU, former Gov. Tom Corbett, Secretary Wetzel (now serving in his second administration), and many others.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 10:45 AM | Comments

Audio: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

OCTOBER 22, 2015

In Pennsylvania, civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agents to legally seize property without convicting an individual of a crime. These laws turn justice on its head, allowing police to presume individuals are guilty until proven innocent.

CF’s Bob Dick sat down with WURD Radio's Stephanie Renée to talk about the abusive nature of civil asset forfeiture.

[Civil asset forfeiture] allows the government to come in and take the property away from someone who may be innocent, or in many cases is innocent…in order for that person to get their property back, they have to go to the government and prove their innocence.

This legalized abuse can be overwhelming for individuals and families with limited financial resources because they are forced to prove their innocence through long, expensive legal battles.

Bob recounts the story of Chris and Markela Sourovelis who had their home seized because their son had been caught with $40 worth of narcotics. The parents committed no crime, but prosecutors determined their house, “an inanimate object”, to be guilty.

Click here or listen below to hear more.

The Mid-Morning MOJO with Stephanie Renée airs Mondays through Thursdays on 900AM-WURD. 

Follow Commonwealth Foundation’s SoundCloud stream for more of our audio content.

And for mobile listening, get the SoundCloud iPhone and Android apps.

posted by JONATHAN REGINELLA | 11:08 AM | Comments

The Jury is In: Corrections Reform is Working

MAY 8, 2015

Remember the time lawmakers from both parties came together in Harrisburg and unanimously passed important, groundbreaking reform legislation?

It's not a joke. It happened in 2012.

As a result of research and advocacy efforts by a transpartisan coalition including the Commonwealth Foundation, the late Democratic Gov. George Leader's family, the ACLU, and many others, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a landmark corrections reform package.

The goals of this bipartisan legislation were many: to better differentiate between violent and nonviolent offenders, and treat them accordingly; to reduce prison population and recidivism rates while keeping the public safe; and to save taxpayers millions of dollars by investing in a smarter, safer, more humane corrections system.

Now, nearly three years later, the reforms appear to be working: The latest data show historic lows in recidivism in Pennsylvania and real taxpayer savings.

According to the Department of Corrections, the most recent six-month and three-year recidivism rates are the lowest the department has ever recorded, while one-year rates are second-lowest in Department history. These rates are the result of smarter and more humane corrections policies, which improve lives and lead to savings for taxpayers, as my colleague Elizabeth Stelle has previously pointed out.

posted by TOM BAKO | 11:30 AM | Comments

Corrections Reform Proves a Win-Win

JANUARY 23, 2015

Unprecedented reductions in the prison population, $69.9 million in taxpayer savings, and lower recidivism rates all indicate that the 2012 corrections reforms are working.

Earlier this month Don Gilliland over at the Tribune Review chronicled some of the big accomplishments of the two-year-old initiative to get smart on crime:

The drop in prison population in 2014 'was the largest one-year drop in our population since 1971, and only the fourth time in the past 40 years that our population has shown an annual decrease, rather than an increase,' said Bret Bucklen, Corrections' director of planning, research and statistics.

The state ended the calendar year with 50,756 inmates. Four years ago, the prison population was expected to top more than 56,000 inmates by the end of 2014.

My colleague Nate Benefield points out that fewer prisoners means no new guards to hire, no new prisons to build and no need to pay other states to board our prisoners (which we did in 2009). All of those developments mean big savings for taxpayers.

The drop in inmates avoided approximately $69.9 million in costs in 2014 alone, and a total of $222 million during Corbett's four-year tenure, according to estimates from the department.

Overall, the corrections budget for 2015-16 is still set to increase, thanks to rising pension costs for corrections officers, but the overall fiscal situation is much more manageable today thanks to the actions taken two years ago.

And the final bit of good news? Governor Wolf's decision to retain Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel indicates the reforms will continue, improving both the quality and cost-efficiency of our prison system.

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 03:00 PM | Comments

Obama Learns from Pa. on Corrections Reform

AUGUST 13, 2013

Criminal justice policy that offers less spending, lower crime and improved outcomes for offenders—too good to be true? Actually, that is the result of recent corrections reforms in Pennsylvania and other states.

So, it's no surprise the federal government wants to follow our lead. Citing Pennsylvania, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a change in policy at the Justice Department that mirrors reforms signed by Gov. Corbett last year.

These new policies focus on keeping low-level, nonviolent drug offenders out of expensive prisons. Holder noted, as did a transpartisan coalition Commonwealth Foundation was part of, that long prison sentences often don't reduce crime but do make offenders more likely to commit violent crime after release.

Instead, being "smart on crime" means addressing small crimes immediately and supporting corrections programs that work effectively in communities—not relying on maximum security prisons. These programs have proven to be cost effective and to reduce recidivism and crime rates.

This type of bottom-up, innovative reform allows the federal government to pattern a nation policy on states that have already proven its effectiveness: Federalism really does work.

Here's to the Obama administration learning from the successes of Pennsylvania and other reform-minded states!

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 10:30 AM | Comments

Milestone Corrections Reform Offers Taxpayer Savings

JANUARY 9, 2013

On the heels of Pennsylvania's historic decline in prison population—the largest one-year decline in four decades—the Department of Corrections announced today the imminent closure of two older prisons. This will save taxpayers an estimated $23 million next year

This welcome news follows landmark bipartisan corrections reform in Pennsylvania that replaces decades of ineffective and expensive corrections policies with reforms that make our communities safer and save taxpayers money.  Such savings and prison closures represent an unequivocal victory for taxpayers, inmates and corrections workers alike.  

SCI Cresson (Cambria County) and SCI Greensburg (Westmoreland County), the two institutions to be closed, are older, less secure facilities that can house fewer inmates at higher operating costs relative to their newer counterparts, like the new facility at Benner Township.  In addition, the new institutions offer a more efficient and more secure design, making them safer for inmates and residents.

Employees who are willing to relocate within the corrections system will be offered a new job.  The entire taxpayer savings is the result of finding efficiencies within the corrections system.

The Commonwealth Foundation has long been part of a transpartisan coalition for corrections reform inspired by former Democratic Gov. George M. Leader, and we continue to stand with Gov. Corbett, Sec. Wetzel, and the unanimous consent of the General Assembly in their efforts to provide criminal justice reform that reduces costs to taxpayers and reduces crime.

posted by TOM BAKO | 06:07 PM | Comments

Three of Four Alarms Still Ringing

DECEMBER 3, 2012

Late last month, the Independent Fiscal Office released its annual report looking at Pennsylvania's economy and forecasting state budget expenditures and revenues. The trends remain alarming.

Most notably, state government is spending more than it is collecting in revenue this year (using remaining surpluses to fill in the gap), and that shortfall is set to widen in future years. The general fund gap will reach $2.2 billion by 2017-18.

This shortfall will be driven by dramatic increases in pension contributions (which will also affect school districts and local governments), Medicaid costs, and debt payments.

As intimidating as that seems, the IFO forecasts assume "current policy"—things will likely get worse. For starters, the IFO assumes spending in discretionary areas like education and transportation will only change with population and inflation; any additional spending lawmakers want will add to those deficits. And the IFO does not include the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which could cost the commonwealth upwards of another $5 billion over the next few years.

On the bright side, the IFO forecasts corrections spending—one of the "four alarms" we've been highlighting—will slow and shrink as a share of the budget over the next five years thanks to landmark corrections reform enacted this year.

Lawmakers must tackle unsustainable pension and welfare spending with the same sort of bipartisan solutions before Pennsylvania's budgetary fire becomes an inferno, and families and business are burned with massive tax hikes.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 10:36 AM | Comments

Pennsylvania Gets Landmark Corrections Reform

OCTOBER 18, 2012

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania passed the final piece, House Bill 135, of a landmark corrections reform package that transforms our ailing prison system to one that works better for YOU.

Commonwealth Foundation applauds Gov. Tom Corbett and Sec. Wetzel for their leadership and thanks House and Senate members for their unanimous bipartisan support for real corrections reform via SB 100 and HB 135.

Over the past 30 years, Pennsylvania's incarceration rate exploded more than 500 percent to over 50,000 inmates.  As a result, taxpayers spend 17 times as much on the Department of Corrections today as they did in 1980.  At a cost of $35,000 per inmate per year, it is not a stretch to say taxpayers have been ill served by a system that locks up more people for longer periods, but fails to deter future crimes.

Here's a look at how these reforms offer a new 21st Century vision for criminal justice and provides better outcomes for taxpayers, communities and offenders:

  • Taxpayers:  The reforms are projected to save more than $250 million within five years.  States such as New York and Texas have embraced similar policy changes, saving tax dollars while significantly reducing both their crime and imprisonment rates
  • Communities: Part of the savings will be used to create a more effective correctional system and safer communities. These programs encourage smarter policing procedures, such as "hot spot" policing  and proven practices to reduce the number of repeat offenders.
  • Offenders: Provides funding and utilizes more efficient communication technology to increase parole hearing capacity. Currently, system inefficiencies and lack of capacity have resulted in 1,900 inmates locked up in prison when they would otherwise qualify for parole. This costs taxpayers more than $66 million per year.

We here at CF are proud to be part, along with Gov. George M. Leader, his family, and many others, of a transpartisan coalition favoring "real corrections reform, right now." We are pleased these reforms provide meaningful changes to save tax dollars while improving public safety.

posted at 01:30 PM | Comments

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