Matthew T. Mangino
Matthew T. Mangino ()

The state prison population increased last year. That is not necessarily earth-shattering news. As of Dec. 31, 2013, Pennsylvania’s prisons housed 51,512 people, up 328 from the same date in 2012. The increase was enough to require the state Department of Corrections to ask for a supplemental increase to the current year’s budget.

According to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the corrections budget is projected at more than $2 billion next year, despite the passage of Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) legislation to save money by reducing the size of state prisons.

The JRI concept was devised about eight years ago as U.S. prison and jail populations were soaring and eating up more and more of state and local budgets.

The idea was to reduce the high cost of incarceration through improved supervision of offenders in the community, in turn bringing fewer probation and parole violators back to prison.

The JRI became a reality in Pennsylvania when Gov. Tom Corbett signed Act 122 in July 2012. The plan recommended funding for local law enforcement, performance-driven incentives for counties to house state inmates, strengthening local probation and state parole and retooling the state’s community corrections system. The plan was to be funded by an estimated $260 million in savings realized by eliminating inefficiencies in the corrections system and lowering the prison population.

The original corrections population projection included a reduction of 719 inmates by 2013 and 1,486 by 2014. The first clearly has not been met and the latter appears to be grossly overstated.

At the very outset of the initiative, there was reason to be concerned. A separate piece of legislation was needed to allocate the savings and reinvestment. HB 135 outlined the formula by which savings would be returned to local governments to carry out the directives of Act 122.

The formula for distributions included the following: 43 percent for local police grants; 26 percent for local grants to improve county probation; 21 percent to implement contracts with counties for diversion of low-level offenders; 6 percent for the Board of Probation and Parole for costs to streamline the parole process; and 4 percent to coordinate and implement improved reentry programs.

However, not all of the $260 million in recommended savings made it into the final version of HB 135. The pool of funds for reinvestment was eventually slashed by about 45 percent to $142 million.

The alarm has been sounded. The DOC can point to averting a crisis in corrections spending—the projected savings of $260 million that was recalculated to $142 million actually amounts to zero.

In his recent official remarks to the state House of Representatives appropriations committee, DOC Secretary John Wetzel wrote: “It’s a fact if, as an administration, we had embraced business as usual, the DOC population would have continued following its previous trajectory, experiencing the originally anticipated growth of 3,562 inmates—rather than the 328 we saw over the last three years.”

According to the Patriot-News, the corrections budget could be more than $113 million higher than the emergency appropriation. Pennsylvania is not the only state to feel the pinch of unfulfilled promises of the JRI.

The JRI is sputtering in Ohio. The two-year-old plan to reduce Ohio’s inmate population is not having the desired impact. The number of prisoners behind bars is expected to spike, according to the Associated Press.

Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the state prison’s already high population of 50,000 could soar to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years. The population numbers are in contrast to rosy projections from 2011 when lawmakers passed the JRI.

Under the law, the number of inmates was supposed to drop to around 47,000 by 2015 and dip below 47,000 two years after that.

In Oklahoma, the legislature passed a list of new laws under the umbrella of the JRI. The problem is the legislature did not provide any funding for the criminal justice measures. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has asked for an investigation into the matter. Not everyone was keen on the JRI, fearing that it would be seen as soft on crime. A recent review of the JRI in Oklahoma concluded in a rather understated manner, “the utilization rate of [justice reinvestment] policies has been much lower than expected.”

There are justice reinvestment initiatives underway in 17 states. A recent study by the Urban Institute found the initiatives have the potential to achieve a “massive return” on the investment of $17 million by the federal government and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

More efficient handling of offenders in the justice system could save $4.6 billion in the states as prison populations are reduced over many years, the institute estimated.

Some participating states “have enjoyed both measurable successes and positive cultural and organizational changes as a result of their reform efforts,” the assessment concluded. However, the assessment warned that sustaining consensus can be difficult “in the face of policymaker turnover, high-profile incidents, and lack of public education.”

That is exactly the issue that Wetzel pointed out to lawmakers during the recent budget hearings.

“No less than 23 bills have passed the House, every one of which has the potential to increase prison populations,” Wetzel said, according to the Patriot-News. He lamented that legislators have done little to counteract efforts through legislation aimed at reducing crime and prolonged incarceration.

“You pass these bills,” Wetzel said, “don’t be surprised when the budget goes up.”

According to the Patriot-News, Wetzel suggested that corrections policy should have two goals: the response should be equal to the crime and the response should yield results. In other words, the offender should be less likely to commit another crime when he or she exits the criminal justice system.

“You can’t say that about some of our current laws and corrections policies,” Wetzel said.

The route to meaningful reform begins with a comprehensive review of the entire system—from charging to sentencing to parole to the ongoing collateral consequences of crime. Anything short of that is political expedience. 

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” is out this summer. Reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.