Being Tough on Crime Is Not Enough

With one in 28 Pennsylvanians in jail or prison, on probation, or on parole in 2007 — at the cost of more than $1.8 billion — Pennsylvania is at a crossroads. The state now faces an 11,000-bed shortfall by 2011 as corrections continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of the state budget.

Texas faced a similar situation in 2003. The Lone Star state had two options, continue building prisons and spend an additional $2 billion per year, or invest $241 million in treatment and non-residential programs designed to reduce the number of returning offenders. They chose the later, seven years later the serious crime rate per 100,000 residents has dropped 10.8% and the reincarceration rate has declined by 9.2%. How did Texas decrease prison population and crime? Largely, through reforms that did not include releasing prisoners early. At a recent discussion, several criminal justice experts from Texas and elsewhere highlighted their success. They looked beyond traditional prison to make the corrections system more effective in two ways:

Fixing parole and probation systems: One of the largest drivers of prison population is violations of probation and parole. In Texas, the number of parole revocations has declined about 27% since 2006. One of the most critical reforms is immediate, intermediary sanctions. Minor infractions of probation or parole could be treated with a night in jail, for instance. This sort of sanction, administered immediately, tends to reduce major infractions that results in individuals being sent back to prison.

Utilizing non-residential programs: In 2003, Texas required all drug possession offenders (not dealers) to be sentenced to probation instead of jail time — through state Drug Courts — and in turn they implemented evidence-based supervision practices and better treatment programs. In this way, they keep minor offenders out of prison where they often interact with hard-core criminals.

Connecticut, Hawaii, and Georgia are also reaping large taxpayer savings by implementing similar reforms.

Yesterday, the PA House Judiciary Committee passed SB 1161, a reform to reduce the number of unnecessary revocations from technical parole violations, which could offer similar savings in Pennsylvania.

For more on effective justice reforms see our Policy Points on Corrections Spending.