Criminal Justice Reform Needed

Auditor General Wagner has warned the Governor and state legislators to begin using alternative-sentencing instead of long-term prison sentences for non-violent offenders, in order to control the ballooning prison population and associated costs.

Pennsylvania has the fastest-growing prison population nationally, adding 2,122 inmates in 2009, and shipping (because of bed shortages) 2,000 of them to prisons in Michigan and Virginia at a cost of $250 million. Instead of urging new prison construction, Auditor General Wagner has called for a halt on expanding capacity, and recommended the use of alternative-sentencing for non-violent offenders, which he reports could save Pennsylvania $50 million in fiscal year 2011-12 and $350 million over four years.

Auditor Wagner stated, “We don’t want to house people to educate them to be better criminals. We want to do what the corrections system is defined to do – correct the behavior of the individual.”

Criminal justice reforms can control growing correction costs while continuing to protect public safety, and reduce recidivism. Non-violent offenders (which comprise 39 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison population according to Wagner) have shown lower recidivism rates when alternative punishments are used compared to long prison sentences.

One of these programs we have highlighted in the past is Hawaii HOPE Courts. Senate Bill 100 creates a similar program, which mandates drug offenders to participate in treatment, call a number every morning and periodically take drug tests. This court has reduced positive drug screens by 91 percent and cut revocations and new arrests by two-thirds.

For more on criminal justice, check out our policy points for more Pennsylvania criminal justice recommendations. The issue of criminal justice spending is a hot one across the country, with many conservatives coming together into Right On Crime, a coalition focused on correction reforms that save money and reduce crime.