Prison inmate growth pressures easing
HARRISBURG - Decades of rapid growth in the inmate population at the state correctional institutions appear to be ending, but state officials still seek more money next year to run the system.
The 2014-15 budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett calls for $77 million more, a four percent increase, to operate the corrections system. Most of that extra spending will go for salaries and benefits for employees. All told, the state will spend $2 billion next year on corrections.
The corrections system includes the 26 correctional institutions, 56 state-operated or contracted community corrections centers and a motivational boot camp. The combined population of these as of last December was 51,512 inmates while estimates suggest a smaller number of 50,175 inmates next December, according to budget documents.
This marks a turnaround from projections in 2011 that the system would have to absorb an additional 3,500 inmates, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the House Appropriations Committee last week.
"We've literally needed to add a prison every year and a half," said Mr. Wetzel referring to the growth rate in prior decades. "Now we've been clearly able to alter our pace, anticipating a need to expand capacity every 30 years or more."
In Northeast Pennsylvania, the department operates SCI Dallas and Retreat in Luzerne County, SCI Mahanoy and Frackville in Schuylkill County, SCI Coal Twp. in Northumberland County and SCI Waymart in Wayne County.
The department closed older prisons at Cresson and Greensburg in western Pennsylvania last year and opened a new prison in Centre County.
As population pressures ease, Pennsylvania is implementing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
These laws enacted in 2012 are designed to keep nonviolent offenders and parole violators out of state prisons in order to ease overcrowding and reduce corrections costs.
The laws make offenders convicted of lower-level drug crimes eligible to serve their sentence in the community corrections centers.
They created programs aimed at reducing inmate recidivism - the return of offenders after they have served their sentence because they committed new crimes - and gave judges a risk assessment tool to use when sentencing offenders.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was expected to save $139 million in corrections costs during a five-year period starting in 2012-13, according to the House Democratic Appropriations Committee. But so far no significant savings have been realized.
Mr. Wetzel acknowledged that major savings have yet to appear.
But he told lawmakers that the framework is in place to make substantial reductions in the inmate population that will lead to significant savings.
"The transformation of our correctional system has indeed begun, but it's been more slowly than we had hoped, especially as it relates to the juxtaposition of parole violators being place in community corrections," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Weztel warned lawmakers that passing new crime bills to set tougher penalties can drive up the inmate population again. The House has passed a number of bills with the potential to increase the population since the reinvestment initiative, he added.
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