Six years ago, Pennsylvania enacted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a corrections reform package successfully trimming the state prison population and crime rate. The second phase of this reform—JRI II—seeks to build upon this success by addressing three key challenges facing Pennsylvania’s corrections system: high corrections spending, insufficient support for county probation, and inadequate pretrial and sentencing guidance.
In May 2018, the Senate passed several reforms outlined in JRI II, which could help reduce the prison population and save approximately $48.2 million over the next five years. Passing these reforms, outlined below and introduced as SB 500, 501, and 502 in 2019, will lead to fair and effective punishments that equip people for life after prison, controlling costs and improving safety.
Improving sentencing and parole practices.
Lack of sentencing guidance leads to unnecessary incarceration and prevents offenders from accessing effective rehabilitation programs. Further, Pennsylvania's high parolee recidivism rate costs taxpayers an additional $224 million annually. Reforming sentencing and parole practices will match sentences to offenders’ community risk, protect the public, reduce overincarceration, and deliver additional savings to taxpayers. Introduced as SB 501 in 2019 by Sen. Thomas Killion, this reform:
- Provides judges with better sentencing guidelines on probation terms and recidivism-reducing options, and more accurately and heavily weighs criminal history scoring in risk assessment.
- Simplifies sentencing options by establishing a uniform list of probation conditions and refining county eligibility for local County Intermediate Punishment (CIP) probation programs.
- Expands access to drug treatment programs—which have effectively reduced recidivism and save taxpayers approximately $33,700 per participant—by renaming State Intermediate Punishment the “State drug treatment program” and expanding usage (retaining current ineligible offenses) and streamlining the selection process.
- Judges can exclude a defendant from eligibility if the prosecutor or victim objects.
- It also streamlines motivational boot camp selection, which reduces sentences for offenders who complete the program.
- Requires recidivism risk to factor into inmate parole decisions.
- Establishes the release of “short-sentence” offenders once a minimum sentence (two years or less) is reached, excluding individuals who committed violent crimes, certain sexual offenses, gun or high-volume drug delivery offenses, and misconduct while incarcerated. Qualifying individuals will be paroled without an interview, reducing incarceration beyond time served.
- Simplifies technical probation violation sanctions, allowing parole agents to quickly detain violators up to 5 days, and allows for use of video technology for parole process interactions.
Provide resources to the county probation system.
Pennsylvania’s probation and parole population accounts for 72 percent of offenders, with 86 percent of those cases under county jurisdiction. County probation departments lack uniform best practices and resources, driving up recidivism rates and corrections costs. Pennsylvania spends an estimated $200 million a year incarcerating people revoked from probation. Introduced as SB 500 in 2019 by Sen. Lisa Baker, this reform:
- Amends the Commission on Crime and Delinquency Law to:
- Create a County Adult Probation and Parole Advisory Committee to review county grant applications, develop a funding plan for county probation and parole departments, and advise the departments, using evidence-based practices to train personnel and assess the unique risks and needs of individuals on probation.
- Reinvest JRI savings, per a revised annual grant formula, to improve risk assessment and sentencing features, enhance county adult probation and parole services, and fund victim compensation.
- Amends the Crime Victims Act to allow counties to retain all supervision fees they collect.
Expand support for crime victims.
Law enforcement agencies sometimes fail to inform victims about their rights or state-offered services; further, officials aren’t required to notify the Office of Victim Advocate of defendant sentencing. As a result, victims often find it difficult to stay informed about their rights and their offenders’ parole notifications. Introduced as SB 502 in 2019 by Sens. Camera Bartolotta, Vincent Hughes, and Art Hayward, this reform amends the Crime Victims Act:
- Improving communication with crime victims by prosecutors and police.
- Specifically, individual officers, rather than law enforcement agencies, must notify victims of their rights, including eligibility in the Address Confidentiality Program and their right to know if their perpetrator is placed in the state drug offender treatment program. Prosecutors must also keep the Office of Victim Advocate informed, on behalf of the victim, about defendant sentencing.
- Expanding eligibility and reporting requirements for victim losses compensation, and merging the Crime Victims Compensation Fund and Victim Witness Services Fund into a single, non-lapsing fund. It further:
- Extends the statute of limitations for making claims from two to three years and allows for a good faith extension;
- Decreases the threshold from $100 to $50;
- Grants flexibility in the amount of emergency awards, adds eligibility for recipients of sexual violence and intimidation orders, adds crime scene clean-up for vehicles, and excuses victims under 18 from requirements to use insurance.
Success of JRI I reforms.
- Prison population decreasing. DOC’s prison population declined by 1,068 in 2018 to 47,370. That’s the largest decline ever.
- That represents five years in a row the population declined, and six of the last seven years. Only three times in the previous 42 years was there a decline in prison population.
- In 2010, Pennsylvania’s prison population was projected to grow to approximately 60,000 inmates by 2017. That a 23 percent more than the actual number of inmates in 2017 (48,438).
- Crime rate decreasing. Between 2015 and 2016 Pennsylvania’s overall crime rate decreased by 3.7 percent.
- Taxpayer savings over time.
- Since 2010, Pennsylvania’s rising prison population has spurred a nearly 25 percent increase in corrections costs.
- These cost increases have been primarily fueled by the dramatic costs in pension contributions and health care costs—which have affected all of state government—and rising overtime payments.
- DOC estimates a $400 million cost avoidance in 2017-18 due to the reforms in JRI 1 and the reduction in prison population.