Unprecedented Prison Population Growth

This is the first installment in a three-part series that will look at Pennsylvania’s correctional system, public policies that have worked in other states, and provide a blueprint to bring Pennsylvania’s corrections system into the 21st century.

Between 1940 and 1980, Pennsylvania’s prison population remained relatively stable, averaging 7,000 inmates. Today, there are more than 50,000 offenders in PA state prisons.

What happened?

In the 1960s, the commonwealth experienced a significant increase in crime, and the public rightly demanded better safety. Police responded, and by the 1980s violent crime rates began to stabilize and eventually decrease. Yet the prison population continued to skyrocket.

Pennsylvania’s inmate population has drastically outpaced crime rates. As the prison population exploded, the state needed more prisons, staff and tax dollars.

Since 1980:

  • Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent.
  • The annual cost per inmate has tripled from $11,447 to $35,188 in 2011.
  • Pennsylvania has added 18 new prisons—with more on the way, each costing about $200 million to build.
  • State corrections spending has increased 1,700 percent and is now the third-largest department in the General Fund Budget.

The unprecedented prison population growth at unsustainable costs was caused by a breakdown in our criminal justice system, not an increase in crime or statewide population growth.

As Pennsylvania’s Corrections Sec. John Wetzel advocates, we need to replace ineffective correction policies with those that lower crime rates, reduce re-offending, and control spending. Stay tuned: Next we’ll examine Pennsylvania’s current corrections programs and proven public policies that have worked in other states to reduce both crime and waste.