“Congratulations, Virginia and Michigan! You’ve just won millions of dollars from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania! All you have to do is house 2,000 of our inmates for about three years. How do you feel?”
This is happening because prisons in PA are over capacity by about 7,000 inmates. While Michigan and Virginia hold our inmates, construction crews will be busy building four new state prisons here in our commonwealth. The construction costs alone will be nearly $1 billion.
Why is this happening? While groups like the ACLU of PA, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and our allies have been advocating for years for alternative ways to deal with offenders, especially non-violent offenders like drug addicts and persons with mental illness, the General Assembly has been led around by the nose by prosecutors who wanted an increasing level of punishment.
According to testimony given by DOC Secretary Jeffrey Beard last month before a state Senate committee, 55 percent of new inmates admitted into state prisons last year were non-violent offenders, largely people who committed drug or property offenses. We’re locking up people who need help, not prison time. (See the testimony I gave at that same hearing by clicking here (pdf).)
Although the commonwealth and some counties have implemented some programs to help people with drug addictions and mental illness who find their way into the criminal justice system, they haven’t gone far enough. New data (pdf) from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing shows that mandatory minimum sentencing has no impact on recidivism and deterrence and that most people can’t even name an offense that carries a mandatory. The commission study recommends repealing or at least shrinking the drug-free school zone mandatory and increasing the minimum quantity of cocaine necessary to kick in a mandatory.
No one solution is a magic bullet to solve the problem of Pennsylvania’s crowded prisons. But with the state corrections budget approaching $2 billion annually, in the midst of a financial crisis, the legislature cannot continue to stick its collective head in the sand. It’s time to start listening to the ACLU of PA and our allies.
Andy in Harrisburg