Note: This commentary was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
As lifelong conservatives, we’re proud to call ourselves tough on crime and to support lengthy prison terms for dangerous felons.
But after a long, taxpayer-funded era of mass incarceration, it’s time we face some hard facts: Our bloated, hugely expensive criminal-justice system has produced disappointing results.
A growing number of states have recognized this fact and responded with smart reforms that improve public safety, contain corrections costs and ensure more offenders become taxpayers instead of tax burdens. Many other states have followed a similar path, substituting smart-on-crime thinking for the lock-’em-up policies of yesteryear.
Guided by data and input from across the criminal-justice spectrum, these states are enacting reforms that reduce crime, control costs and help offenders turn their lives around. Pennsylvania is poised to build on this momentum.
Last year, Pennsylvania’s prison population experienced its biggest one-year decline in 40 years, a major success story. This was the result of a 2012 law that focused on prioritizing state prison for violent offenders and improving the parole process. Savings resulted and were reinvested in smarter policing and alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders.
While this is a major achievement, more work needs to be done. The Keystone State still has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast. And the cost of doing nothing about it — literally and figuratively — is too high.
Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate climbed 20 percent between 2004 and 2014, with the total correctional population, which includes both state prisons and county jails, jumping by 17 percent. By comparison, neighboring states New York and New Jersey saw their incarceration rates drop by 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in that time.
Spending for corrections in Pennsylvania during this period rose to $2.1 billion from $1.5 billion, a 40 percent increase. And costs continue to rise. The state Department of Corrections has requested $2.4 billion in state funding for the fiscal year that began this month.
These are startling numbers. Clearly, it is time to build on the progress of the last few years.
We have a blueprint to do that.
Starting in 2011, following a nearly 30 percent rise in the prison population over the previous 10 years, former Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature embarked on “justice reinvestment” in Pennsylvania. This data-driven approach analyzes hundreds of thousands of records across the criminal-justice system to discover trends, identify inefficiencies and develop legislative fixes. The goal is to cut corrections spending and reinvest funds in programs that can reduce recidivism and improve public safety — that is, to reduce prison spending and reduce crime at the same time.
Enacted in 2012, this approach helped decrease the prison population to 49,914 from 51,184 by the end of 2015. This produced almost $13 million in savings, $4 million of which was reinvested in public-safety enhancements. These included victims’ services, more effective policing procedures, probation improvements and local reentry strategies for former inmates.
In the end, the commonwealth’s commitment to improving our criminal-justice system not only saved taxpayer dollars, but also made lasting improvements in the lives of those impacted by crime.
These changes stemmed from reforms focused primarily on parole. A new Justice Reinvestment Initiative, spearheaded by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and a bipartisan group of legislators, including Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai and Republican Senate President Joe Scarnati, will focus on the front end of the system, including sentencing and pretrial policy.
As in 2012, Pennsylvania’s new initiative will be assisted by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that has helped more than 20 states — including North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia — turn their struggling criminal-justice systems around.
Pennsylvania has a great opportunity to embrace research-driven, results-oriented solutions that reduce recidivism, improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars. That’s what we mean by being smart — and right — on crime.
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J.C. Watts, a former congressman from Oklahoma, is president and CEO of Feed the Children. Charles Mitchell is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg that focuses on public policy in Pennsylvania.