Prison Overcrowding Solutions

Testimony submitted to the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee

We would like to thank the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for giving us the opportunity to submit testimony on the important issue of prison overcrowding and corrections spending. The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.

Corrections costs and prison population have skyrocketed in Pennsylvania over the last decade. In 2007, one in 28 adults in Pennsylvania was in prison, on probation, or on parole, costing taxpayers more than $1.8 billion. The 2009-10 budget includes a $175.2 million increase in corrections spending. The state’s incarceration rate increased 280% since 1982, and within the last nine years the inmate population has increased by 40 percent.

The Commonwealth will soon have four new prisons to house an inmate population that is growing by about 2,000 people every year. Corrections Commissioner Jeffery Beard is currently attempting to house nearly 51,000 inmates in prisons designed to hold 43,000.

It is evident that Pennsylvania has passed the point of diminishing returns on prison spending. Pennsylvania’s only sensible alternative is to implement programs that reduce the number of inmates and cut costs. The good news is that this can be done without jeopardizing public safety.

A study by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing found that neither the length of a sentence nor the use of mandatory-minimum sentencing reduced recidivism, while costs have risen. More than 1,000 people received drug-related mandatory-minimum sentences in 2007, up from 384 a decade earlier.

There are alternatives to incarceration for these crimes. Other states have employed various programs that have lowered corrections costs. For instance, to reduce recidivism among drug offenders, states implemented drug courts. Indeed, young offenders, offenders with a prior arrest, and offenders who were incarcerated for their crimes were more likely to break the law again than those who received addiction treatment and non-prison punishment. The use of alternative-sentencing programs remains low, with only 20 percent of offenders eligible for State Intermediate Punishment referred to this drug-related program.

Other alternatives to incarceration include mandatory probation, treatment, and work requirements for first-time drug offenders caught with small quantities of drugs for personal use. With 49,000 inmates costing taxpayers $33,000 a year, redirecting first-time offenders could save Pennsylvania taxpayers millions in incarceration costs.

Attached, please find our recent PolicyPoints, which identifies cost-saving policy alternatives in corrections. Please feel free to contact us, or visit our website at for more information.

Thank you.