Governor Rendell is waltzing with a gorilla in tackling the thorny problem of prison overcrowding. But it’s a dance that’s been delayed for decades and can no longer be denied.
State and local prisons in Pennsylvania are so crowded that we are at a tipping point. Our only options appear to be committing hundreds of millions of tax dollars to add institutional capacity or changing our sentencing patterns. Either way, the governor must confront a public traditionally resistant to paying taxes for prisons or a legislature unwilling to do anything that might be perceived as being soft on crime.
Since the 1980s, Pennsylvania and other states have experienced a dramatic spike in the prison census, spurred primarily by a crack down on illegal drug use. The Commonwealth opened new prisons and helped counties to replace old ones. Just as quickly, lawmakers adopted longer sentences and gave judges little discretion to shorten them, and later administrations curtailed parole releases. It was like pouring one gallon of water into a bathtub and letting out one ounce.
Philadelphia jails are overflowing with more than 9,000 men and women in confinement, many housed three to a cell and locked down for 23 hours a day. State institutions also are at 110 percent of capacity with almost 46,000 prisoners. Anticipating the worst, the Department of Corrections has plans to build new prisons, reactivate a mothballed one and expand others.
So, Governor Rendell is proposing a package of changes that make a lot of sense. Among the proposals is one that would move all county inmates whose sentences are from two to five years into state facilities. These individuals are technically state prisoners anyway because their sentences exceed two years but they have been permitted by the judges in their cases to serve their time in the nearby county jails.
The downside to serving five years in the county is that local prisons and jails are generally not well equipped to hold people for that long: they lack programming and counseling capacities, spend less on staff training and are geared toward more rapid turnover.
Making room for these 2,500 or so county prisoners could be accomplished, according to Jeffrey Beard, state secretary of corrections, by implementing a “recidivism reduction program.” That’s a fancy name for one the governor’s other initiatives.
This program would permit early release on parole of certain nonviolent offenders in exchange for their active participation in rehabilitative programming. In this way, these nonviolent offenders would minimize their exposure to the hardening effect of prisons, occupy expensive cell space for less time, and get therapeutic interventions designed to help them avoid re-offending.
The Department of Corrections’ most recent study of recidivism showed that 46 percent of parolees return to prison within three years either for violating conditions of their release or committing new crimes. This is a major source of admissions to the state system.
For the first time in years, the governor is shunning the “bring it on” response. What he is proposing is a win-win approach, a way of addressing a persistent problem responsibly.
Legislators concerned about their reputations for being tough on crime need to give some thought to being perceived as smart on crime. It truly is time to face the music and, well, dance.
A condensed version of this article was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 2nd, 2007. William DiMascio is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
[Photo by Chrissie64]