BLOG: Pennsylvania Prison Population Sees Biggest Drop in 40 Years

By: J.J. Abbott, Deputy Press Secretary

January 20, 2016

Yesterday, Governor Wolf announced big news: 2015 brought the greatest one-year decline in the Pennsylvania prison system in more than 40 years. Department of Corrections’ population decreased by nearly 850 offenders.

Consider that it costs about $41,000 to incarcerate an offender per year in the Pennsylvania state prison system. That’s a cost of nearly $34 million dollars for 842 offenders in prison.

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As Governor Wolf said, we’re not just letting people out. Secretary John Wetzel and DOC are working tirelessly to reduce recidivism, increase programs for education, addiction and job-training to better rehabilitate inmates to prepare them for re-entry.

This is important because it also shows another important fact: this is now a trend. Under Sec. Wetzel’s leadership we’ve seen two straight years of reductions – including 756 less offenders last year and a total of 1,598 total population reduction over two years.

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Here are specific steps DOC took under the Wolf Administration that helped reduce overall population:

  1. In 2015, Governor Tom Wolf encouraged Department of Corrections’ use of performance-based contracts that hold vendors accountable for the programs they provide, the DOC announced an overall recidivism reduction of 11.3 percent in the community corrections system.
  2. Department of Corrections drastically expanded their work in combating opioid addiction among inmates, including new treatment to help inmates reduce their reliance on addictive substances – answering Governor Wolf’s call for state agencies to do more to address the heroin crisis.
  3. Governor Wolf expanded Medicaid, which allowed more returning inmates, including those in need of substance abuse or mental health treatment, to sign up for coverage when they go into a pre-release program.
  4. In 2015, DOC employee was trained in Mental Health First Aid; the DOC established an Office of Mental Health Advocate; and a number of new diversionary housing units were established to ensure mentally ill offenders are not placed in restricted housing units.  Work continues in this area continually improving the DOC’s mental health.

The commonwealth enacted a beginning phase of criminal justice reform in 2012 with the enactment of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.  Work in this area, specifically the reduction in the state prison inmate population, has resulted in the state now being able to reinvest some of the money saved back into the county level.

Governor Wolf wants to continue and expand criminal justice reform in Pennsylvania and the reality is that there is still much work to be done. We can do even more to not only spend millions less on our prisons and more on creating jobs and education. But we can keep more people out of the system – through diversion programs and increased opportunity – and ensure that offenders more prepared to re-enter society with skills and a purpose to not return.

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