In what may be one of the most dramatic reforms in recent Pennsylvania history, the Criminal Justice Reform Act was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in July. Looking to remedy the inherent flaws and growing strain on the inefficient Pennsylvania justice system, the Act hopes to reduce prison populations and cut costs while shifting focus towards rehabilitation as opposed to punishment.
As a state that has garnered the reputation as being one of the most punitive in the nation, the reforms could not come soon enough. The consequences of strict sentencing and reactive law enforcement over the past two decades have led to a state prison population of 51,757. This huge amplification in prisoners comes out to a 40% increase over the last 12 years. The corrections budget has ballooned to $1.86 billion a year, with these funds unable to remedy the fact that 26 penitentiaries were found to be over capacity by at least 4,000 inmates. These numbers are alarming, disturbing and unsustainable.
The mandatory minimum sentences, for-profit prisons and lack of diversionary programs have been the three largest contributors to this mess the justice system has found itself in. Locking up offenders for minimum terms, particularly non-violent criminals, without considering the situation is a reactive approach that is not welcome in a society that prides itself on due process and justice.
Minimum sentences are obviously huge benefits for corporations that own the prisons that profit from extended jail stays. This conflict of interest is unconscionable but has continued to be prevalent throughout our county, mainly because of public misinformation and selfish financial interests of the few. Not only are prisoners given mandatory, arbitrary sentences, they are also not given ample opportunities to rehabilitate and learn how to be a productive member of society. This vicious cycle makes it more difficult for a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to fairly represent an alleged offender when the odds are completely out of their favor.
Considering the recidivism rate in Pennsylvania shows that 46% of offenders are back behind bars within three years ($244 million spent on this alone), the Reform Act has become a vital aspect of our justice system going forward. As a point of comparison, the country of Norway is known to have one of the most progressive prison systems in the world and currently has a recidivism rate of 20%.
The Criminal Justice Reform Act makes many changes to the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Some of the substantial revisions include expanding the eligibility for intermediate punishment, a program for nonviolent offenders convicted of an offense motivated by the use or addiction to drugs, along with banning defendants convicted of certain misdemeanors from serving their sentences in state prison. In addition, the Act moves to establish as a default that parolees are returned to community corrections centers, in lieu of state prison, for most parole violations.
One of the most progressive aspects of the bill is the requirement to reinvest any savings from reducing the prison population to create a risk-assessment tool for judges when sentencing defendants, to fund local law enforcement and to give judicial districts and incentive to divert defendants to county jails through programming such as treatment and drugs courts.
The measures mandated by the Criminal Justice Reform Act are projected to lower Pennsylvania’s prison population by as many as 4,000 inmates over four years and to save up to $370 million in five years. The fact that it has taken this long to reach a simple conclusion is frustrating, considering that many accused criminals (many of which are non-violent) have languished in prison without any options to move in the right direction. It is vital that our state lawmakers implement this Act in a timely and efficient manner, allowing our society to evolve and become safer.