Pennsylvania’s Blueprint for Better Public Safety

As Pennsylvania confronts another tight budget, Governor Corbett and legislative leaders must address the skyrocketing costs of prisons. Obviously, there are dangerous people who should be locked up to protect the public. However, as with all government agencies, there is waste and inefficiency in the criminal justice system that costs the taxpayer dearly but does not make us safer.

For example, the state is spending $77 million each year to keep people in prison who have already served their sentences and been approved for parole. Nevertheless, because of slow processing of paperwork, such as an incomplete housing plan or failure to pay $30 to the victim compensation fund, they remain behind bars taking up a bed that could be used for a dangerous criminal.

This isn’t tough on crime – and at a cost of $32,000 a year per inmate – it’s just plain stupid.

Nationally, the Right on Crime coalition is composed of conservative leaders who support sensible and proven reforms to our criminal justice system – policies that will cut prison costs while keeping the public safe. Among the prominent signatories are former Governor Jeb Bush, Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Ed Meese, former drug czar Asa Hutchinson, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, former Chairman of the American Conservative Union David Keene, and renowned sociologist John Dilulio of the University of Pennsylvania.

Right on Crime’s Statement of Principles sums up our policy reforms very well: “Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending.”

Other states have followed Right on Crime’s lead and are proof that it is possible to improve the criminal justice system in ways that reduce prison costs and increase public safety.  Consider “Tough on Crime” Texas, where state leaders decided against spending an additional half billion dollars to build three new prisons. The governor and bi-partisan leaders of the legislature proposed sweeping reforms. Rather than building new prisons, in 2007 they took a portion of the projected savings and “reinvested” that money in strengthening and expanding probation and treatment options which are proven to reduce re-offending among nonviolent mentally ill offenders and low-level drug addicts. Not only have these reforms reduced the state’s prison population – and thereby helped close the budget gap – Texas’ crime rate is now at its lowest level since 1973.

In the last couple of years, similar reforms have been enacted in states such as South Carolina, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The common thread of the reforms is prioritizing costly prison beds for truly dangerous criminals, while punishing low-risk offenders in less costly community programs. Moreover, they utilize more effective supervision and treatment programs to help them stay on the straight and narrow.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to follow suit.

Fortunately, Governor Corbett’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group has thoroughly studied the system from top to bottom, and has recommended several excellent policy reforms that will reduce costs to the taxpayers, hold offenders accountable and make our communities safer.

The proposed changes would address inefficiencies in the system and save around $250 million over five years, according to Pennsylvania’s well-respected Secretary of Corrections, John Wetzel. The proposals will redirect $86 million of the savings into investments that will make the public safer, including crime reduction grants for local law enforcement; improvement for county probation and parole departments for provide supervision of ex-offenders, and increasing services for victims of crime.

Governor Corbett and leaders of both parties have united in support of the recommendations of this blueprint for better public safety. These state leaders are proving they are not doing “business as usual.” Instead, they are confronting the chronic cost drivers that have caused spending on prisons to explode.

Their leadership will keep the public safe while saving the taxpayers money. That is both smart on crime and right on crime.


Pat Nolan is the President of Justice Fellowship and is a leader in Right on Crime.