Control of prison costs headed in right direction
Pennsylvania's prison population has begun to level off and the Corbett administration is trying to ensure that the burgeoning costs of the prison system follow suit. Its announcement Wednesday that it will close two old prisons in favor of opening a new one is a case in point, but part of a larger effort that has begun to produce results.
Corrections secretary John Wetzel said prisons at Greensburg, Westmoreland County, and Cresson, Cambria County, will close and that 2,000 of their 2,400 inmates will be transferred to Benner state prison in Centre County. Benner was completed last year at a cost of $200 million but has not yet opened. About 800 employees at the closing prisons will have the opportunity to transfer.
According to Wetzel, the move will save about $35 million a year while improving the quality of the prison system. Cresson has been under a federal investigation since December 2011 for alleged mistreatment of some prisoners.
Pennsylvania has about 51,000 inmates and a capacity in state prisons for about 48,000. As of 2010, the prison population had grown by more than 500 percent since 1980, partially due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, many sex offenders serving maximum rather than minimum sentences and parole restrictions.
There were slight reductions in the population in 2010 and 2011, reflecting a national trend, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, the Corbett administration has attempted to safely reduce the population to control costs. The prison budget is about $1.8 billion. It has canceled plans for one new prison and reversed a plan to reopen another that had been closed. It has advocated alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders and has tried to eliminate obstacles in the parole process that keep inmates in prison for weeks and months even after their paroles have been approved.
Perhaps the best part of reducing prison costs is that the saved money can go to state services - education, drug rehabilitation and so on - that help to keep Pennsylvanians out of prison in the first place.