State Budget Solution #1: Corrections Reform

Flawed Sentencing System Driving Spending Growth

January 11, 2017, Harrisburg, Pa.—As state budget season begins, Governor Wolf and legislative leaders have signaled their desire to streamline government as an alternative to broad-based tax hikes. In Embracing Innovation in State Government, the Commonwealth Foundation has outlined a menu of policy solutions to close the budget deficit without tax increases.

Solution #1: Corrections Reform

Despite a recent drop in the prison population, Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate is the highest of any Northeast state—due not to disproportionate crime rates but to sentencing inefficiency, according to the Council of State Governments. Since 2005, corrections spending has grown by 55 percent, spiking from $1.53 billion to more than $2.3 billion. Corrections is now the third-largest General Fund expense.

As Gov. Wolf and lawmakers focus on the state budget, they should enact the following corrections reforms:

  • Release individuals when sentences end. Holding prisoners beyond their sentence to complete programming before parole costs taxpayers $69 million per year. Lawmakers should implement less expensive alternatives to incarceration for low-risk offenders.
  • Reduce recidivism through expanded use of proven programs. Lawmakers should give judges tools to best utilize intervention programs rather than relying on costly incarceration sentences. Moving less dangerous offenders out of jail will reduce costs and free space for the truly dangerous.
  • Avoid lengthy prison terms for minor probation and parole violations. Costing $421 million per year, probation and parole violators account for 30 percent of the state’s prison population. In 2017, the average cost of an inmate will be $48,200, just slightly less than Pennsylvania’s $53,599 median household income from 2011-15. By contrast, the average cost of a parolee is $4,200, according to the Independent Fiscal Office. Better supervision practices and swifter sanctions for probation and parole violators will reduce the prison population and save tax dollars while protecting public safety.
  • Use community corrections facilities more efficiently. Pennsylvanians spend $131 million annually on community corrections facilities, occupied mostly by parolees. Lawmakers should limit facility use for low-risk offenders to make room for high-risk offenders.

“Gov. Wolf and lawmakers have committed to improving government efficiency and reducing waste, a promise that should encourage all Pennsylvanians,” commented Bob Dick, senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation. “Building on the successful corrections reforms of 2012 is a great place start. We must seize the opportunity to improve our corrections system to both protect public safety and deliver significant cost savings to hardworking Pennsylvanians.”

Note: Leading up to the state budget address, Commonwealth Foundation will highlight additional budget solutions.

Bob Dick and other Commonwealth Foundation experts are available for comment. Please contact Gina Diorio at 862-703-6670 or [email protected] to schedule an interview.

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