Justice reinvestment in Pennsylvania, if enacted as planned, is projected to save the state more than $100 million over the next five years.
Roughly half of that money is recommended to be put back into programs meant to reduce crime and re-offending, and in turn save even more money.
“The tagline for justice reinvestment is 'achieving corrections savings and reinvesting savings in strategies to reduce recidivism,' and we are very in keeping with that here in Pennsylvania,” said Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The main area for reinvestment that is designed to reduce recidivism is the more effective county-level probation.
“Probation is hugely important,” Reynolds said. “It's where most of the people end up. Something like 75 percent of the sentences result in a probation sentence, and yet it's sort of a stepchild in the Pennsylvania construct.”
Reynolds said the current system is underfunded at the state level and under-governed.
Recommendations include changing the way county-level probation is funded by tying state dollars to caseload and the needs of those being supervised rather than by a portion of salary costs incurred by the county.
The group also recommends allowing counties to retain all supervision fees rather than remitting them to the state temporarily, and creating a state governing body to create a funding mechanism, provide data collection and provide training and technical assistance to counties.
'Swift and certain'
The group also recommended what is known as a swift, certain and fair model for parole violators.
“This is the one that gets me really excited,” said Bret Bucklen, director of the Bureau of Planning, Research & Statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
He said the system would trade severity for technical parole violations with swiftness and certainty of punishment.
Individuals found to have committed a technical parole violation – missing an appointment with a parole officer, getting caught drinking or other behaviors that do not include arrest for a new crime – would be sentenced to a short stay in prison of less than a week.
Currently, Bucklen said those individuals can spend three to six months back in prison for a technical violation and are subject to wide discretion as to which violations will trigger a return to prison.
These “quick dip” prison stays for technical violations operate under the theory that it is not the severity of a punishment that makes it effective, but the certainty and the speed with which that punishment will be imposed, Bucklen said.
He said the swift and certain model should also provide a better sense of fairness and legitimacy to the corrections system.
“This is kind of a deterrence 101 approach,” Bucklen said.
Intermediate punishment expansion
Nearly 70 percent of all inmates in state prison have a substance abuse issue, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel told The Sentinel in 2015.
However, a program aimed at treating these inmates known as intermediate punishment is likely underused.
Justice reinvestment seeks to increase the number of inmates in the program.
Intermediate punishment is a 24 month treatment-based program for non-violent offenders with diagnosed substance abuse disorders. A minimum of seven months is served in prison, at least two are served in a community-based therapeutic treatment program and a minimum of six months are served in outpatient treatment.
The remainder of the flat 24-month sentence is served under supervised community reintegration.
“Historically ... we’ve always had a problem using it to its fullest capacity,” Bucklen said. “All of our estimates have been that only about 25 percent of those who are eligible for SIP are getting sentenced to SIP.”
A study by the Council of State Governments found only 27 percent of inmates released from SIP were rearrested within three years, compared to more than 40 percent of inmates released from a strictly prison based sentence.
Bucklen said one of the main problems with getting prisoners into the program is the current logistics to do so.
Currently, a judge must recommend a defendant for an SIP evaluation. The defendant then goes to the department of corrections to be evaluated. Once the evaluation is complete, a recommendation is returned to the judge who then must sentence the defendant to the intermediate punishment program.
“One of the complaints that we have heard is that it is just so convoluted to get an offender into SIP,” he said. “So, if we could just make it a simpler process, then we can get more people in.”
The work group has recommended that process be streamlined. Instead of the judge being required to sentence the defendant to SIP, the judge would only indicate if a defendant should not be enrolled in the program.
It would then be up to the Department of Corrections to evaluate the defendant following a sentencing and determine if they are a good candidate for SIP.
Bucklen said this change should conservatively expand the use of the program by 10 percent.
The working group has also recommended making changes to victims’ services.
While this may not be directly tied to reducing recidivism, Bucklen said it is part of increasing justice in the criminal justice system.
The recommendations include increasing access to information about crime victim's rights and expanding who is covered under the victim's compensation fund.
“On the notification side, we want to suggest that individual police officers have a responsibility to notify victims, to hand them the state form that says 'you have the right to avail yourself in the crime victims' services' and essentially require officers ... who are at the scene of the crime and asking them to make sure that that information gets in the hands of the victim,” Reynolds said.
The work group also recommends that district attorneys notify the state victim advocate when a defendant has been sentenced to state prison in an effort to maintain contact between victims’ services and the victim following that transition.
Reynolds said there are several little changes requested for the crime victim's compensation fund including lowering the threshold of financial loss that allows for reimbursement, expanding the offenses that can be compensated and providing a good-faith exception to the deadline victims need to file a claim.