Correcting Corrections Correctly

Over the last 30 years, Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent and corrections spending has skyrocketed 1,700 percent. 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. 

Evidence-based policy reforms should embrace the following three principles:

  1. Keep Low-Risk Cases Out of Prisons. Research indicates that while imprisonment keeps offenders from committing crimes while in prison, it does not deter crimes after release, and may even make low-risk offenders more likely to commit future crimes.
  2. Reduce Recidivism. Inmates must be rehabilitated by addressing behavioral and substance abuse issues. Nearly 45 percent of Pennsylvania offenders return to prison after three years. A significant factor is technical parole or probation violations such as breaking curfew, not new crimes.
  3. Fund Results, Not Just Punishments. Criminal justice reforms should protect citizens, lower crime rates, and control spending.

Senate Bill 100

This legislation primarily addresses how the state correctional system handles nonviolent offenders with drug and alcohol addictions. 

  • Risk Assessments Guidelines. An up-front risk assessments tool is added into the state’s sentencing guidelines.
    • This will sort out high risk cases that should be in state prison from lower risk cases that may be better managed in less expensive alternative programs.
  • Alternative Program Eligibility. As an alternative to traditional prison, offenders may be sentenced to one of the state’s alternative sentencing programs, designed for nonviolent criminals, often dealing with substance abuse. SB 100 makes the following changes:
    • Allows eligible offender to be sentenced to a state-level alternative program even if a mandatory minimum sentence applies. Currently, minimum sentences disqualify many otherwise eligible offenders.
    • The age criteria for an inmate to be sentenced to Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp increased from age 35 to 40. Modeled after military boot camp, it delivers a rigorous, regimented schedule. Successful program completion earns inmates a reduced sentence.
    • Offenders with low-quantity drug trafficking offenses may be sentenced to County Intermediate Punishment. Offenders serve their sentence and receive appropriate treatment at the county level instead of state prison.
  • County “HOPE” Courts. Counties can establish an innovative probation program that provides swift, predictable sanctions on probation violators. Modeled after Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program to incentivize probationers to stay drug and alcohol free.
    • In a HOPE program, drug offenders must call every morning to see if they must report to court for a drug test. Failure can result in immediate jail time. As a result, positive drug tests have dropped more than 70 percent and new arrests cut in half, saving an estimated $4,000 to $8,000 per offender.
  • Counts Jail Time towards Prerelease Center Eligibility. One of the time-eligibility requirements an inmate must satisfy before entering a prerelease center is serving at least nine months of their sentence in prison. Under this law, time served in county jails and would count towards this minimum. Violent and sex offenders are ineligible.
    • Prerelease programs provide low-risk offenders opportunities for reintegration into communities through work, education and vocational training release as well as community centers for specialized additional treatment and guidance and counseling.
    • State corrections facilities receive a significant number of offenders with short sentences that would be better served in community centers than state prisons.

Recommendation for Improvement

  • SB 100 makes small expansions in eligibility criteria for the state’s successful alternative sentencing programs. This should be extensively expanded, particularly allowing more inmates convicted of substance abuse.
    • At a minimum, the list of offenses ineligible for alternative sentencing should not be expanded.
  • A sentencing judge should be able to order an offender to participate in an alternative sentencing program without approval by the prosecutor.
  • There should be incentives for counties to establish a “HOPE” court style program or require counties to participate.