Pennsylvania’s auditor general on Thursday announced plans to produce a special report touting the societal and financial benefits of criminal justice reform.
Noting that Pennsylvania holds roughly 47,000 people in state prisons on any given day and that state prison costs rose to $2.4 billion in 2015 – an approximately 300 percent increase from 1995 – Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he will examine whether sentencing nonviolent offenders to prison is putting a strain on the correctional system and burdening taxpayers with extra costs.
“We must find a way to try to reduce the amount of people that are in prison to try to save money, but also do it in a way that protects our communities and making sure that we’re keeping families as intact as possible,” DePasquale said.
A Democrat from York County, DePasquale said that nearly $74 million was spent in 2015 to keep people in state prisons beyond their minimum sentence, and that on average, those people remained in prison more than five months beyond their required minimum stay, costing an average of $20,000 per person.
“That five months is the time these individuals, who have paid their debt to society, could better spend working and supporting their families and not being a burden on taxpayers when they are, at that point, not a threat to society,” DePasquale said.
DePasquale hailed Pennsylvania’s new Clean Slate law, a multifaceted measure which went into effect Dec. 26 designed to help formerly incarcerated or arrested persons improve their lives.
The law expands criminal record sealing to include more types of offenses, including some first-degree misdemeanors, which can be sealed by filing petitions. The law also creates an automated computer process to seal arrests that did not result in convictions within 60 days, summary convictions after 10 years, and some second and third-degree misdemeanor convictions if there are no subsequent misdemeanor or felony convictions for a period of 10 years after the time of conviction. The automatic sealing provision will go into effect on June 28, 2019.
DePasquale said his report, which is anticipated to be completed by fall, will examine the high cost of corrections for “relatively low-level” offenders, adding that nearly 70 percent of prison sentences are handed out for misdemeanor crimes.
“(That) means more than 30,000 people who committed low-level, usually nonviolent crimes are clogging our prisons,” DePasquale said, noting the prevalence of property or drug crimes associated with addiction among offenders.
DePasquale recalled that his own father was in federal prison for eight and a half years, an incarceration he said stemmed from drug addiction, remembering his father having to be shackled at his brother’s funeral and marveling at the number of young families sitting in the waiting room on weekends to visit an imprisoned loved one.
“There are some people that deserve to be there,” DePasquale said.” But there’s got to be a better way we can do this in Pennsylvania and across the United States.”
Lamenting what he indicated was inadequate state support for county probation and parole services, DePasquale reported that only 6 percent of state criminal justice spending was allocated to counties despite 66 percent of those in the criminal justice system receiving county-level supervision in 2014.
“Without sufficient support for probation and parole officers, who can be juggling up to 100 cases at a time, people on probation or parole may fail to meet their conditions and be sent back to prison,” DePasquale said, adding that parole officers having burdensome caseloads may be a factor in nearly one third of state prison beds being occupied by people who violated their probation or parole terms.
DePasquale announced he will also explore the societal impact of high incarceration rates, especially for nonviolent offenders, the availability of legal counsel for all defendants, whether reforms are needed to the Board of Pardons or its processes, the role that cash bail plays in keeping people incarcerated unnecessarily before trial and whether the state’s civil asset forfeiture process should be reformed or replaced.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last week announced the largest reduction of inmates in the state prison system since record-keeping began: a 2.2 percent decrease from 2017 to 2018.
The state inmate population has declined six of the past seven years and declined 3.93 percent from the end of 2008 to the end of 2018.
“It is difficult to ascertain why court commitments dropped during 2018, but it may be due to continued crime drops across Pennsylvania or to other efforts by the counties to divert appropriate cases from state sentences,” state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “The drop in parole violator admissions is likely due to improved efforts, under the DOC and Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole consolidation, to divert technical parole violators from lengthy returns to state prison.”
Fayette County, though, has consistently had one of the highest state incarceration rates in Pennsylvania, routinely ranking in the top 10 statewide throughout this decade.
Fayette County had the sixth-highest state incarceration rate in 2017 at 590.9 per 100,000 residents, a 4.4 percent increase over 2016, according to data cited by the DOC in its 2017 annual statistical report.
Incarceration rate calculations are based on the number of inmates incarcerated in the state prison system for each committing county. The rate does not include county or federal inmates.
Fayette County also had the ninth-highest number of court commitments (275) in 2017 among all 67 counties, and Fayette was easily the smallest county among the top 10 in terms of overall population.
Located in La Belle, State Correctional Institution-Fayette had a total DOC population of 2,151 as of Dec. 31, 2018, while SCI-Greene in Franklin Township had a total DOC population of 1,787, according to DOC data.
Of Pennsylvania’s 25 state correctional institutions, 16 had a total population that exceeded their operational bed facility as of Dec. 31, 2018, including SCI-Fayette (2,129 beds for a total population of 2,151 and physically present total of 2,134, with 14 having an authorized temporary absence and three in a local hospital).
SCI-Greene was one of the nine institutions whose total population (1,787) did not exceed its operational bed capacity (1,850) as of Dec. 31, 2018.
“I am concerned there are too many nonviolent offenders in prison,” DePasquale said.