Pennsylvania Leaders Launch Public Safety Initiative to Tackle Drivers of Cost, Incarceration, and Recidivism

February 18, 2016

Harrisburg, PA – Governor Tom Wolf and leaders from both political parties and all three branches of government today launched an extensive review of the state’s criminal justice system as part of a new Justice Reinvestment Initiative designed to reduce ineffective corrections spending and invest those savings in proven public safety strategies.

“A broken criminal justice system is a failure to deliver on the promise of a fair and just society, and we must all work together to ensure Pennsylvania leads the nation in rehabilitation and not incarceration,” Governor Wolf said. “While much progress has been made, there is more we can do and today is the beginning of an important process to look at how we can improve our criminal justice system from sentencing guidelines to our bail system. Working together, we can make many significant changes that will make our system fairer, improve public safety and save millions of dollars.”

Pennsylvania currently has the highest incarceration rate among all states in the Northeast, despite reducing its prison population in recent years. The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization assisting the state in its justice reinvestment approach, today released an overview of the state’s criminal justice system. Preliminary findings include:

  • Pennsylvania is one of only four states in the nation where corrections spending exceeds expenditures on higher education;
  • Between 2004 and 2014, corrections expenditures increased by 40 percent, from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion.
  • Over the same period, the state’s incarceration rate increased by 20 percent. Conversely, New York and New Jersey saw their incarceration rates drop by 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
  • The Department of Corrections has requested $2.3 billion in state funds for the 2015–2016 budget, a 7-percent increase over the prior year.

“When legislators from both sides of the aisle work together to tackle these tough issues, we create genuine results,” House Speaker Mike Turzai said. “We proved that with a justice reinvestment approach we took in 2012. That bipartisan spirit must be invoked again in order to build on the positive outcomes that we are seeing to create a safer and more cost effective system.”

Indeed, the justice reinvestment approach has already proven to be effective in Pennsylvania. After the state’s prison population increased by 28 percent (from 40,090 to 51,184 people) between 2002 and 2012, a Justice Reinvestment Initiative conducted by the state in 2012 helped spur a decline in the population to 49,914 people by the end of 2015. These changes generated almost $13 million in savings, close to $4 million of which was reinvested in areas to enhance public safety, such as victims’ services, effective policing procedures, strengthening probation, and local reentry strategies.

“Pennsylvania has certainly made significant headway over the last few years with strong improvements to our criminal justice system,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said. “It is vital that we continue to work towards increasing efficiencies and reducing the costs of our corrections system. We need to reduce recidivism to benefit our communities and help ensure that taxpayer dollars that are being sent to Harrisburg are being used productively.”

Despite the impacts from the 2012 reforms, other drivers of incarceration and costs at the state and local levels remain unaddressed. Therefore, the latest justice reinvestment effort will focus on the front end of the system, including sentencing and pretrial policies.

“Our prisons were taking on increases of 1,500 inmates each year. In turn, our taxpayers were taking on enormous costs. The 2012 corrections and parole reforms halted a lot of that,” said John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections and board member of the CSG Justice Center. “But Pennsylvanians aren’t satisfied with simply treading water. They are counting on this process to curb costs while recalibrating our system so that resources are directed at strategies that can lower crime and recidivism rates.”

To support the state’s new initiative, Gov. Wolf today also established a bipartisan working group of 35 representatives from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of state and local government, as well as other criminal justice stakeholders.

“I am honored to lead this bipartisan panel of experts as we work together to reform our criminal justice system in ways that make our communities safer, enrich the lives of those involved in the system and protect the interests of taxpayers,” said Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and chair of the working group. “Working together we will develop a comprehensive policy package that will strengthen our Commonwealth.”

Throughout the year, the working group will guide the CSG Justice Center’s analysis of state and local criminal justice system data in order to develop policy options for introduction in the General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session.

Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, who has joined the Governor and Legislative Leaders in supporting the process, noted: “Justice reinvestment provides a clear opportunity to do a thoughtful analysis of our criminal justice challenges. Judges, who are carrying out innovative practices in courtrooms across the commonwealth, have valuable perspectives that will help the working group identify practical policy alternatives.”

The new initiative also received bi-partisan and bi-cameral support from all four chairs of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committees.

“The first wave of criminal justice reforms have finally started to drive down Pennsylvania’s inmate population and costs and have provided a means of investing in successful strategies to further drive down incarceration; however, this was just the beginning,” said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf. “We have broken the barriers to rethinking corrections policies on all fronts from rehabilitating non-violent drug offenders, to addressing mandatory minimum sentences, and expunging minor criminal records. I look forward to working with our partners on this latest justice reinvestment initiative to find more reforms and strategies to further reduce Pennsylvania’s inmate population and corrections spending.”

“Working together to find effective and efficient ways to improve public safety is a fundamental responsibility of state government,” Rep. Ron Marsico said.

“JRI has helped us reduce our prison population and costs,” Sen. Daylin Leach said. “It should be refined and continued, but it’s also time to consider whether spending tax dollars on lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenders make us any safer.”

“In this first year serving as Judiciary Chairman, I have already seen the stark differences in outcomes across populations, counties, and offenses.,” Rep. Joseph Petrarca. “It is clear that we need to do more to control costs, protect the public, and improve outcomes for families”

The CSG Justice Center has helped 24 other states—including West Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio—apply the justice reinvestment approach. The initiative is made possible through funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

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