Moving Toward Efficient, Effective Criminal Justice

The economy is growing, but Pennsylvania just keeps sinking deeper into debt.

Since 1970, we’ve tripled our overall operating budget—but our population has grown only 8 percent. Even adjusting for inflation, it’s clear we’ve got a spending problem.

The Independent Fiscal Office recently predicted a $1.7 billion deficit for 2019. Why is it that while America’s economy booms, Pennsylvania gets poorer?

While many factors contribute to the commonwealth’s unstable budget, discussions often revolve around the $32.7 billion General Fund, which has grown $3.6 billion in just four years.

Pennsylvania has lost any ability to rein in education, human services, and criminal justice spending. Department of Corrections (DOC) spending reached $2.5 billion in 2018-19, a nearly 25 percent increase since 2010.

High incarceration contributes to this spending growth. In 2018, Pennsylvania prisons housed 47,430 inmates, costing $45,288 per inmate on average.

(Infographic: Corrections Spending Trends)

Raising state taxes is an unsustainable solution—every Pennsylvanian already bears a $4,589 state tax burden. The key is spending smarter—a strategy that is already paying dividends in our prison system.

Pennsylvania officials enacted criminal justice reform known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) in 2012. Since then, the prison population has declined for five straight years, including the sharpest one-year decline (1,068 individuals) in 2018. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped by more than 18 percent.

The benefits of reform continue to compound. DOC estimates the state saved $400 million since 2012 because of JRI.

 (Infographic: Pa. Prison Population)

Pennsylvania can build on this success by passing the second phase of JRI reforms, a package of bills already introduced in the Senate (SB 500-502) and forthcoming in the House. Through these efforts the state can spend more efficiently and effectively, further reducing the prison population, saving an estimated $48 million, and keeping our streets and communities safe.

JRI specifically:

  • Provides automatic parole for individuals serving non-violent, short-term sentences and meeting all requirements, including good behavior.
  • Reinvests savings into better probation and parole practices, improves sentencing guidelines, and enhances access to drug treatment.
  • Improves victim rights communication and expands eligibility requirements for victim compensation.

As the budget continues to grow, straining Pennsylvanians’ ability to pay, passing smart legislation is crucial. Corrections reform is just one of many solutions that can help put the commonwealth’s finances back in order.