Senate Passes Greenleaf Prison Reform Bills

HARRISBURG—Today, the Pennsylvania Senate approved three prison reform bills sponsored by Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf.  The bills (SB 1145, 1161, 1275) would provide for alternative sentencing programs for non-violent offenders, allow offenders with short minimum sentences to serve their time in community corrections centers, and provide punishment alternatives for technical parole violators.

The state’s inmate population has increased by a staggering 618% between 1980 and 2010 (from 8,243 in 1980 to over 51,000 inmates in 2010).  If the prison population continues to increase at the current rate, beginning in 2012 Pennsylvania may have to build a new prison every year at a cost of over $200 million to build and $60 million annually to operate.  The past five years have seen the sharpest increase in incarceration, exacerbated by a two month moratorium on parole following the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer in 2008.  The three new facilities currently under construction are expected to open in 2013 and will be immediately filled to capacity.

Prison population growth in Pennsylvania, as in most states across the country, is mainly due to the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders.  Sixty percent of Pennsylvania’s inmates do not have a history of violence or any significant drug dealing activity.  Four out of five drug arrests in the state are for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five drug arrests were for sales.

About 46% of offenders return to prison within months of their release for committing new crimes or for a technical violation of their parole.  3,000 Technical Parole Violators (TPVs) were re-incarcerated in 2008 alone for violations such as breaking curfew or failing to report to their parole officer.  TPVs spend an average 14 months in prison, following their recommitment, with no real effect on recidivism over those diverted for shorter periods.

The Legislation Passed Today Includes:

SB 1145:  Risk and Needs Assessment
Because current alternative sentencing programs are underutilized, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission would develop a worksheet to help judges identify offenders with the lowest probability of being reconvicted of a serious crime.  These offenders are then considered for alternative sentencing programs, so that correctional resources are focused on those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.

SB 1161:  Short Minimum Cases
This legislation would allow inmates with short minimum sentences to be moved to community corrections centers for community-based treatment.  The bill overturns a regulation that an inmate may not be transferred to a prerelease center until the inmate has served at least nine months in a state correctional institution.  These offenders, with short sentences, are the less serious offenders and there is no reason to hold them in secure prison cells when they are otherwise eligible for prerelease.  While confined at a community corrections center, these offenders could participate in job training and take advantage of educational opportunities.

This legislation establishes a graduated sanctioning process for state parole violators.  The system is designed to hold the parolee accountable for a technical parole violation while avoiding the cost of recommitting the parolee to prison.  A violation sanctioning grid will be developed that divides violations into high, medium and low range violations.  An example of a high range violation is assaultive behavior; a medium range violation is the possession of unauthorized contraband; and a low range violation is the failure to pay supervision fees.  The grid will include high, medium and low sanction ranges.  An example of a high sanction is shock incarceration; a medium sanction is electronic monitoring; and a low sanction is increased reporting requirements.

“I’m very pleased that the Senate is seriously addressing prison reform,” said Senator Greenleaf.  “These bills are based on empirical evidence showing that alternative sentencing works and keeps non-violent inmates out of prison and leading productive lives.  As well, this legislation will save Pennsylvania the enormous cost of incarcerating non-violent offenders.”

Contact: Aaron Zappia
(215) 657-7700