Between December 1999 and April 2007, the prison population in Pennsylvania increased 24 percent, far outpacing the growth of the commonwealth’s adult resident population.i In 2007, one in 28 adults in Pennsylvania were in prison, on probation, or on parole, costing taxpayers more than $1.8 billion.ii The state’s incarceration rate has increased 280% since 1982.iii Factors contributing to the increase in the state’s incarceration rates and costs include:

• an increasing percentage of offenders with “less severe offenses” being admitted to prison;

• high failure rates among people under community supervision;

• high re-incarceration rates that may be due in part to inmates not receiving effective programming;

• a steady stream of admissions of inmates who had previously served time in county jails without receiving appropriate programs, treatment, or reentry training.

A legislative package (Acts 81-84 of 2008) enacted in the Fall of 2008 was designed to reduce recidivism and diminish the need to build more prisons. It included four key provisions relevant to improving public safety and slowing the increase in prison costs: (1) providing incentives to certain lower-risk inmates to complete programs that reduce recidivism; (2) allowing the Board of Probation and Parole to focus supervision resources on offenders in their critical first year on parole when the risk of recidivism is greatest; (3) providing more access to drug-treatment programs, and (4) authorizing the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to develop parole guidelines based on best practices and available research.

Despite these efforts, the state’s prison population has continued to grow. Largely for this reason, the 2009-10 Pennsylvania state budget included a $175.2 million increase in corrections spending.iv The state’s leading conservative think tank, The Commonwealth Foundation, recommended that policymakers enhance the utilization of alternatives that have been proven to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, electronic monitoring, and intermediate sanctions imposed by probation and parole officers for rules violations.v

In 2012, Pennsylvania followed Commonwealth’s advice and passed HB 100 and HB 135, two justice reinvestment packages that identify savings in the state corrections budget  and reinvest those savings in county-level alternatives to incarceration. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican from Alleghany County, is enthusiastic about the prospects of success for the justice reinvestment bills: “Working together, we can deal with crime in a way that will redeem more offenders, appropriately incarcerates violent offenders and sexual predators, and keeps us all from being held prisoner to the growing costs of locking up the bad guys.”

i Pennsylvania Public Safety Policy Solutions, Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.
ii “Prison Overcrowding Solutions,” Commonwealth Foundation ,16 Nov. 2009.
iii Ibid.
iv Ibid.
v “Pennsylvania Corrections Spending,” Commonwealth Foundation, 15 Oct. 2009.

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Pennsylvania is one of many states that have seen a massive increase in incarceration over the past 30 years. As explained in this commentary by the Commonwealth Foundation, however,…

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Since 1980, the incarceration rate in Pennsylvania has increased by 500%, and the budget for the state’s Department of Corrections has increased by 1,700%. Read more
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