How to Revamp Pa.’s Criminal Justice System

Pennsylvania can reduce its prison population by more than 1,000 people while saving approximately $108 million over five years, according to a Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) Working Group Report.

The report is the culmination of research and recommendations from independent organizations and government officials. The working group identified three key challenges facing the commonwealth’s criminal justice system:

  • Escalating costs – State spending on corrections has risen from $1.6 billion in 2006 to $2.4 billion in 2015—an increase of 50 percent. A substantial amount—an estimated $74 million—is used to incarcerate people who stay beyond their minimum sentence.
  • Lack of support for county probation – Pennsylvania’s counties supervised 66 percent of the people inside the state’s criminal justice system in 2014. Yet, counties generally receive inadequate state support for the costs associated with these responsibilities. Subsequently, the lack of adequate supervision leads to probation violations, which means more people return to prison, costing taxpayers $200 million annually.
  • Poor pretrial and sentencing guidance – A wide range of bail decisions and lack of clear sentencing guidelines make it more difficult to adequately balance proper punishments and public safety.

To address these issues the JRI Working Group offers six policy options for lawmakers:

  1. Make time served for short state prison sentences more predictable. People inside the state’s prison facilities will often be held passed their minimum sentence—by an average of 5.3 months. Yet, this extra time in prison costs taxpayers’ tens of millions of dollars and does little to reduce recidivism. By implementing presumptive parole and freeing people after their minimum sentence, lawmakers can reduce the prison population without jeopardizing public safety.
  2. Improve the state’s approach to funding and supporting county probation. This policy option includes increasing state funding for county probation. By spending smarter, the state could improve the probation process and avoid additional costs produced by recidivism. The JRI Working Group also recommended establishing a state-level governing body to provide oversight and support for county probation departments.
  3. Increase support for victims. The report finds victims in Pennsylvania are not always notified of their rights. To rectify this, the report suggests increasing notification to victims and improving their access to the Victim Compensation Assistance Program.
  4. Improve pretrial decision making. The report recommends the Supreme Court review bail-related rules to make the process more uniform and fair for all involved. It also calls for another working group to establish pretrial practices. The purpose of the group would be to implement the use of risk assessments statewide, promote programs that reduce recidivism, and reduce unnecessary pretrial detentions.
  5. Increase guidance provided by sentencing guidelines. This fifth policy option requires the legislature to direct the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to modernize sentencing guidelines. Current guidelines permit a wide range of sentences for the same crime, which means sentences handed down could be counterproductive or punitive. The commission should also be required to highlight the sentences that have done the most to reduce recidivism and costs.
  6. Improve parole supervision. Pennsylvania’s parole system is admittedly broken. The system needs an overhaul, which is why the Working Group has proposed adopting admission criteria for community corrections facilities based on risk and the needs of parolees. They also suggest using short sanctions instead of incarceration for parole violators. The former has proven to change the behavior of violators and is a less expensive alternative to incarceration.

Some of the policy options above would require additional funding, but this could be covered with the savings realized from the recommended reforms. In fact, the report suggests using a little more than half of the $108 million saved—$57.25 million—to reinvest in the criminal justice system.

On net, lawmakers could save taxpayers nearly $51 million if they adopt and fully implement the report’s recommendations. Such savings look increasingly necessary as lawmakers are scrambling to fill a $2 billion gap between revenues and desired spending levels.