The Department of Corrections (DOC) recently announced its intentions to close two state prisons and reduce capacity at community corrections facilities (halfway houses). These decisions will cut state incarceration costs—an amount now north of $2 billion—without jeopardizing public safety.
That's a big win for taxpayers and an important move towards redesigning state government to avoid new taxes.
Unsurprisingly, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association is highlighting the potential for job losses and overcrowding. But these concerns are weak justifications for saddling taxpayers with the costs of two unnecessary prison facilities
Why? The DOC has already promised to move all displaced employees to another position within the department. As for overcrowding, the changes will bring “emergency capacity” up to 92 percent, which isn’t ideal, according to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, but it also doesn’t constitute a crisis.
Lawmakers can ensure the prison population continues to responsibly decline by adopting the reforms laid out in our policy brief, Embracing Innovation in State Government:
- Ensure individuals are released when they’re eligible for parole. Too often prisoners are kept beyond their minimum sentence without good reason. This additional time in prison costs taxpayers an estimated $69 million a year.
- Base sentences on cost-effective recidivism-reducing sanctions. Judges don’t have access to the pertinent information needed to impose sentences most likely to reduce recidivism. If lawmakers give judges the tools needed to hand down effective sentences, they will be in a better position to move less dangerous offenders out of prison.
- Avoid lengthy prison terms for minor probation and parole violations. According to the Independent Fiscal Office, housing an inmate costs $44,000 more than supervising the average parolee. Ensuring “swift and predictable” sanctions for probation and parole violators can keep people out of prison and drive down costs.
- Properly utilize community correction facilities. DOC is already pursuing this course of action. According to Sec. Wetzel, community correction facilities have not been “yielding satisfactory outcomes.” This is why DOC is cutting facility capacity. Under the department’s plan, people who would normally be sent to these facilities would be supervised by a parole agent at home.
These reforms stem from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Working Group, which seeks to build on the landmark reforms passed in 2012. These reforms helped reduce the inmate population by 850 in 2015—the largest one-year decline in 40 years.
Reducing overtime pay and merging the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole with the Department of Corrections are two additional ideas not included in our report but worth pursuing. DOC is in the process of addressing the former by filling vacant positions, conducting a staffing analysis to determine the optimal number of employees, and of course closing down two prison facilities.
Senator Stewart Greenleaf introduced the latter reform last session. It passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis, but it unfortunately died in the House. According to the Wolf Administration’s conservative estimate, the merger would save $10 million in the first year of implementation.
By adopting the reforms above, lawmakers can adequately keep Pennsylvanians safe, protect their wallets, and improve the state's unacceptable financial position.