Policies Would Increase Public Safety, Support Victims of Crime, and Reduce Costs
By CSG Justice Center Staff
Today the Pennsylvania Justice Reinvestment Working Group released a comprehensive report that details how the state can increase public safety by strengthening probation supervision, improving access to substance use treatment programs and expanding available responses for parole violations, while reducing its prison population by more than 1,000 people. These changes will help Pennsylvania avoid spending an additional $108 million in corrections costs over the next five years. The full report can be found here.
“I applaud the working group for its focus and dedication in putting together this thorough and bipartisan report,” Governor Tom Wolf said. “I am eager for the legislation to be introduced so that these recommendations can be implemented to achieve cost savings and increase public safety while supporting our corrections and parole staff and county probation programs.”
The report contains a series of policies developed by Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group over the past year and a half and is supported by data analysis provided by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.
“The policies presented in this report will improve public safety, provide budget relief, and make Pennsylvania spend more effectively and efficiently on criminal justice,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who chaired the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, said. “As leaders on the working group and public servants, our goals are to maximize resources and protect citizens from crime. These policies, which save the commonwealth about $100 million over the next five years, will help us be both tough and smart on crime.”
In order to maximize the opportunity to increase public safety, Pennsylvania needs to increase its support and funding for county probation departments to help improve supervision and reduce the number of people who are incarcerated for supervision violations.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us to take action that will directly improve the ability of our county probation departments to keep our communities safe while at the same time providing some relief to our strained general fund,” Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “Far too many of the people entering our prisons and jails have been there before. We need to take steps to stop this trend before it puts even more pressure on our local law enforcement officials.”
The report calls for the formation of a new state-level committee to help counties create standards to improve probation practices and determine the best way to maximize the use of state funding for probation. According to the report, funding should be determined in part by the number of people on probation and the resources needed for effective supervision, instead of the outdated and flawed formula in current law.
“Pennsylvania needs to fix the way we provide funding for probation if we want to decrease the flow of people reentering our prisons and jails,” County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Deputy Director Brinda Carroll Penyak said. “Our county probation chiefs, who have the best shot at reducing recidivism, shouldn’t be left trying to supervise people with such limited resources.”
The report calls for streamlining the admission process for the state drug treatment program so more people can take advantage of this rehabilitation program.
“Judges don’t want to keep sentencing the same people over and over again. And we must have more confidence in the amount of treatment and supervision someone will receive if we are to rely less on expensive sentences to prison,” Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marisco said. “If we are going to truly rehabilitate the people who enter our criminal justice system, we need to provide the opportunities they need to help them turn their lives around.”
In March 2016, the working group began reviewing analyses provided by the CSG Justice Center as part of the data-driven justice reinvestment approach used to address the state’s rising corrections costs, inefficient sentencing practices and lack of state support for county probation.
The report recommends that a portion of the averted costs be invested in the state’s Victim’s Compensation Assistance Program.
“This report promotes a comprehensive approach toward making our communities safer and supporting those who have been impacted by crime,” said Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm. “The reinvestment funds will go a long way toward helping make victims of crime whole again and ensuring that those who are released from prison and jail are receiving effective supervision.”
From 2006 to 2015, Pennsylvania’s annual corrections costs increased 50 percent, from $1.6 billion to $2.4 billion.
“Rising corrections costs are going to put serious strain on an already tight budget if action is not taken,” said Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Chairman Charles Ramsey. “We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us to enact policies that save money and reinvest a portion of those savings in practices that make communities safer.”
The majority of the averted costs and reduction in the prison population will be achieved by eliminating the practice of incarcerating people convicted of low-level offenses in state prison for an average of five months beyond their minimum sentence date. The practice cost the state $73 million in 2014 and does not yield better recidivism rates than placing people on parole at the end of their minimum sentence.
“When it comes to breaking the cycle of recidivism for people who commit low-level crimes, the data shows it is more cost-effective to invest in community-based treatment and supervision than it is to house someone in a cell for a few extra months,” President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper said. “These release delays cost millions while providing minimal, if any, benefits.”
The report details policies that reduce the release delays by requiring people who have committed certain nonviolent low-level crimes to be released from state prison after they complete their minimum sentence and be placed on mandatory parole supervision. In addition to being placed on parole, they will be required to participate in community-based programs designed to reduce recidivism.
The Justice Reinvestment Working Group, with assistance from the CSG Justice Center, sought input from district attorneys, judges, public defenders, law enforcement officials, probation and parole officers, victims and their advocates and local officials to help inform their analysis of the state’s criminal justice system.
The justice reinvestment process launched in February 2016 after leaders from all three branches of government officially requested intensive technical assistance from the CSG Justice Center with support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Twenty-six states have employed a justice reinvestment approach with the CSG Justice Center to date, including Idaho, North Carolina and West Virginia.