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Auditor General Jack Wagner Says Pa. Needs Sentencing Reform, Construction Freeze to Shrink Corrections Costs
Releases special report, “Fiscal and Structural Reform – Solutions to Pennsylvania’s Growing Inmate Population”
HARRISBURG, Pa., Jan. 27, 2011 – Auditor General Jack Wagner said today that Pennsylvania could save $50 million in fiscal year 2011-12 and $350 million over four years if Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly better utilize existing alternative-sentencing programs and implement other reforms as a way to curb Pennsylvania’s unsustainable increases in prison costs.
Those taxpayer savings are in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs that could be saved by eliminating construction of new facilities needed to hold Pennsylvania’s burgeoning inmate population, one of the fastest-growing in the nation.
Increased utilization of alternative-sentencing programs would provide more opportunities for rehabilitation of non-violent inmates and reduce the cost of housing prisoners, a cost that has tripled over the past 30 years, Wagner added. Over 19,000, or 39 percent, of the inmates in Pennsylvania’s state prison population are non-violent offenders. Wagner further added that, by expanding alternative-sentencing measures, Pennsylvania could institute a moratorium on new prison construction.
“With Pennsylvania facing its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, we must look for sustainable savings in every nook and cranny of state government, and that includes the criminal-justice system, which is one of the three biggest drivers of increased spending over the past decade,” Wagner said.
He noted that Pennsylvania’s state budget has grown at twice the inflation rate over the past 10 years, from $19 billion to $28 billion, an increase of 47 percent. Corrections spending helped fuel the increase, with the Department of Corrections’ General Fund budget over the last 10 years increasing by $430 million.
Spending increased because Pennsylvania’s inmate population has exploded over the past generation. Due in part to tougher sentencing guidelines, particularly with drug-related offenses, Pennsylvania’s prison population is five times higher now than it was 30 years ago, rising from 8,243 in 1980 to 51,487 in 2010. The Dept. of Corrections projects that the prison population will swell to 61,146 by 2014 if existing trends continue.
In 2009, Pennsylvania had the fastest-growing prison population in the nation, adding 2,122 inmates. Florida was second, adding 1,527.
Largest increases in Prison Population (2009)
The commonwealth is addressing the increase by spending $862 million in taxpayer money to construct four new correctional institutions and four housing units – but the 9,000 additional beds are expected to be occupied as soon as construction is completed.
“While most economic sectors in the commonwealth remain mired in recession, prisons remain Pennsylvania’s largest growth industry,” Wagner said.
To handle its prisoner overflow, Pennsylvania last year signed five-year contracts worth $250 million to send 2,000 inmates to prisons in Michigan and Virginia. Wagner said this was a short-term solution that does not address the long-term problem of rising prison costs.
The annual cost per inmate nearly tripled, rising from $11,447 in 1980 to $32,059 in 2009, driven in part by the state’s aging inmate population. In 1980, there were 370 prisoners aged 50 or older; in 2009, there were 7,949.
Wagner said that several states that once had the fastest-growing prison populations are now among the leaders in shrinking prison populations because they have already taken several reform measures.
Largest Decrease in Prison Population (2009)
States seeking to decrease their prison populations and decrease prison costs have taken a wide range of steps, including:
Pennsylvania has instituted several alternative-sentencing programs, including:
Wagner provided several recommendations to reduce the rising cost of the criminal justice system, which he said would not apply to the most serious and violent offenders, and are aimed at non-violent offenders, many of whom have drug or alcohol addictions or are technical parole violators. Among his recommendations, which are available to the public at www.auditorgen.state.pa.us:
Auditor General Jack Wagner is responsible for ensuring that all state money is spent legally and properly. He is the commonwealth’s elected independent fiscal watchdog, conducting financial audits, performance audits and special investigations. The Department of the Auditor General conducts thousands of audits each year. To learn more about the Department of the Auditor General, taxpayers are encouraged to visit the department’s website at www.auditorgen.state.pa.us.
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