New statistics regarding money spent on the Pennsylvania Corrections System were recently released, and unsurprisingly, they highlight some major issues with how the system operates. The most worrisome number mentioned by The Council of State Governments Justice Center, is the $49 million in taxpayer money used in 2010 to house non-violent offenders beyond the minimum release dates for misdemeanors and minor felonies.
Seeing a huge number like this goes a long way in showing that Pennsylvania’s corrections system is flawed. It shows that mandatory minimum sentencing and the punitive nature of Pennsylvania non-violent convictions must be revised. It is counterproductive for the state to continue unnecessarily spending millions of public dollars imprisoning individuals who would be much better served by reducing their sentences through the use of rehabilitative programs, drug diversion or probation. In these cases, the offender can learn from the situation and grow, as opposed to rotting in a cell, likely lowering the cost and overpopulation burden the state carries.
As for the corrections system currently in place, consultants from the Justice Center have found that individuals convicted of non-violent crimes requiring minimum sentences are not even given the opportunity to meet conditions for early release. In fact, the most common reason for denying inmates’ parole during the past two years was failure to participate in or complete institutional programming such as education programs and drug treatment. The problem with this is that three-quarters of inmates with a minimum sentence of a year or less cannot complete the programs to get out by then due to how Pennsylvania prisons operate.
Law enforcement, prison officials and prisoners alike would benefit if non-violent criminals had the opportunity to satisfy their requirements by getting into programs quickly so they can rehabilitate while in jail, as opposed to simply waiting out the sentence and using up valuable resources. The Justice Center also found that the state’s programs designed to reward inmates for good behavior have been backlogged.
Fortunately, after the release of these numbers, some Pennsylvania policymakers are taking notice and considering a bill that would keep nonviolent offenders from going to state prison. Considering the state’s prison population has increased from 7,000 in 1980 to 51,645 today, this is a massive problem that has strained state resources by leaving a large proportion of low risk inmates without any options to remedy the situation because of their mandatory minimum sentences.
The majority of the blame for the large rise in prison population is not more violence or crime; it is simply due to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 70’s and 80’s. Requiring an individual to serve a minimum sentence lumps many offenders into broad categories, as opposed to judging their crimes individually, as should be the case.
Arising from good intentions, with a goal of searching for a more efficient way to tackle the criminal process, mandatory minimums have only helped to exacerbate the problems of unfair judgments and prison overpopulation. Judicial discretion that would have normally allowed for leniency or different punishments is thrown out the window when it comes to minimum sentencing, which has an adverse effect on the ability for a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to defend an individual for the crimes they committed. Personal situations are also not taken into account as these stringent guidelines are followed. This gives many otherwise productive members of society who have committed minor offenses a disproportionately harsh sentence.
With the problems we are having with regard to funding our federal and state governments, we should be taking a pragmatic and rational approach to analyzing the state of affairs in the Pennsylvania legal system, while also focusing on problems that are solvable, like changing mandatory sentencing laws and introducing diversionary programs for non-violent offenders. This will free up public funds and lower prison populations, while allowing low risk offenders to rehabilitate and become productive members of society.