More than $2 billion was allocated this fiscal year to operate Pennsylvania state correctional institutions to house prisoners.
State officials are hoping to use a process known as justice reinvestment to reduce that cost and put those savings into programs that will help stop crime before it starts.
“This was about a year-long effort and I think it is critically important to reform our criminal justice system to achieve three goals; No. 1, to make communities safer, No. 2, to be able to meet the needs of crime victims and reduce the number of crime victims; and No. 3, to reduce the burden on tax payers in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Elect Joshua Shapiro said. “I believe we can achieve all three of the objectives.”
Shapiro was the chair of a bipartisan working group that, in December, voted to approve several recommendations for a second justice reinvestment initiative in the state.
Justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to reforming the criminal justice system that has two main steps.
The first is to examine the operation of the justice system and find ways to create cost savings. Some of those savings are then reinvested back into programs, policies and strategies aimed at reducing crime and reoffending.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a non-partisan nonprofit organization, conducted an exhaustive study of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system and worked with a bipartisan workgroup to shape policy recommendations for the justice reinvestment.
The group has been tasked with similar justice reinvestment projects in several other states.
Those recommendations have been passed on to the state legislature and state governing bodies for potential enactment.
The main driver of initial savings is providing prisoners who are serving a short minimum sentence of two years or less the presumption of parole at the completion of their minimum prison term.
Director of the Bureau of Planning, Research & Statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Bret Bucklen said prisoners with those short minimum sentences are spending on average four to six months extra in prison, which in turn increases the cost to the state.
Typically, prisoners are released at their minimum sentence and serve the remainder of the maximum sentence under supervision on parole.
Bucklen said for many prisoners with a short minimum sentence merely going through the process of getting placed in a state correctional facility and going through the current parole process can push them past their minimum sentence date.
The current process requires all inmates receive a hearing with the parole board and the parole board must recommend the prisoner be released.
Under the workgroup’s recommendation prisoners with a short minimum sentence would presumptively be released on parole at their minimum sentence and would only need to go before the parole board if they receive a serious violation while in prison.
“There would be some exceptions,” Bucklen said. “About 10 percent of that population will pick up a serious misconduct or infraction while they are here. They would then be ineligible and could spend longer past their min date.”
It is significantly less expensive to supervise an individual on probation or parole than in prison. An estimate from the Council of State Governments provided as part of the justice reinvestment program found it costs roughly $1,000 a year per person on probation compared to more than $36,000 per year to keep that person in state prison.
Bucklen said the way the system is currently operating, where short minimum sentence prisoners remain in prison beyond that initial date, can lead to delegitimizing the criminal justice system to those offenders.
While this impact on legitimacy has not been quantified in Pennsylvania, research – including the work of social psychologist Tom Tyler – has shown that a sense of procedural fairness can increase a feeling that a system is legitimate and in turn reduce crime and recidivism.
In total, all of the policy changes are projected to save the state roughly $108 million over the next five years, according to a report from the Council of State Governments.
Roughly, half of that is recommended to be reinvested into programs like more effective probation and victim services, ideally driving down repeat offenses and lowering crime rates.
“I think what’s critical is that we be smart on crime,” Shapiro said. “and that our policies ultimately lead to the outcomes that are important to this process—number one, safer communities, number two, protect the interest of victims and number three, reducing the burden on tax payers.
“We shouldn’t be measured by some political talking point,” he added. “We should be measured by the real outcomes.”