In July, I declared on this blog that prison reform was on life support. What a difference three months can make.
On Monday, the state House passed Senate Bill 1161. This bill takes on several reforms of Pennsylvania’s criminal sentencing and parole regimes:
- Tasks the Commission on Sentencing to devise guidelines for judges to use to consider what threat to public safety a defendant poses and what potential for rehabilitation that defendant has.
- Empowers the Board of Probation and Parole to parole inmates at their minimum sentence if the only reason not to parole them is their inability to finish required programming, e.g. drug and alcohol counseling, with the expectation that the person will finish the programming on parole
- Allows the board to implement evidence-based practices to determine when technical parole violators (those who violated parole but did not commit a new crime) should be reincarcerated and when they should stay on the outside.
Because the House amended the bill, it will have to go back to the Senate for a vote on concurrence before going to Governor Rendell. That Senate vote needs to happen next week, as it is the Senate’s last week of session for the year.
All of these reforms will require a willingness to carry them out. The Commission on Sentencing guidelines are intended for judges to send offenders to alternative programs either short of prison or within prison that could lead to their early release. And allowing the Board of Probation and Parole to utilize certain alternative ideas will be completely ineffective if the board doesn’t actually use them.
But the value in this exercise has been continuing the conversation about Pennsylvania’s bloated prison system. The Department of Corrections is currently several thousand inmates over capacity, to the point that 2,000 inmates have been sent out of state. We’re going to spend nearly $1 billion over the next three years to build four new prisons.
Meanwhile, other states are decreasing their prison populations. Why not Pennsylvania?
The reforms in SB 1161 are modest, and we’re disappointed that the House amended out the provision that allowed inmates to be released to pre-release centers within 18 months of their minimum sentence. We’d like to see the legislature move reforms to mandatory minimum sentences recommended by the Commission on Sentencing. The General Assembly must address flaws in the State Intermediate Punishment program and in the Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative that make those programs less effective than they could be.
But passing this bill is another sign that the legislature is finally getting smart on crime. And that is a welcome change.
Andy in Harrisburg