"The corrections Rendell’s budget needs" 2,000 more cages proposed in Rendell’s budget

The corrections Rendell’s budget needs

BY PROPOSING spending increases on education, medical assistance, unemployment and health insurance for children, and including almost no new programs, Gov. Rendell’s final budget reflects the sobering realities of a lingering recession.

Still, his budget does include a spending increase that must have been embedded as a trick or joke, maybe as payback for having to deal all these years with a recalcitrant Legislature. It’s the only logical explanation for his announcement that in these dire times, we’re making it a priority to spend more money on . . . prisons.

In his budget address, Rendell called for an increase of $137 million for the Department of Corrections, about 7 percent. Of that, $13 million will be spent on providing 2,000 more beds in new housing units to deal with overcrowding. This increase will put the state’s corrections budget at $2 billion – 7 percent of the total state budget.

Pennsylvania is not alone in being hit with explosive growth in prison costs. Those costs are rising due to a number of factors, starting with the simple fact that more people are in prison than ever before. According to a 2008 study by Pew Center of the States, the state has grown from one in 99 adults under correctional control to one in 28 adults. Each offender costs us close to $100 a day.

But we disagree with Rendell on one fundamental: Prison costs are not “fixed” costs as he claims, offering little or no discretion. Pennsylvania’s prison crisis is rooted in laws and policies that can be changed.

For example, according to another Pew study, Pennsylvania has the second-longest prison sentences in the nation. Like many of Pennsylvania’s problems, the roots of our prison crisis can be traced to actions by state lawmakers.

Back in 1984, the Legislature passed the first laws imposing mandatory minimum sentencing. Initially, it applied only to violent crimes, DUI’s, and repeat offenders. However, lawmakers expanded the criminal code to include many drug crimes in 1988 and again in 1995. As a result, Pennsylvania’s prison population exploded, growing by 280 percent in less than three decades.

Mandatory minimums were popular with politicians trying to look tough on drugs. However, a study by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing found that these policies were essentially useless in deterring crime. The report – requested and funded by the state Legislature – found that mandatory minimums had no impact on recidivism and recommended eliminating many of the statutes. (That’s why we’re no fan of Brendan Boyle’s attempt to actually lengthen sentences for repeat violent offenders, as well as eliminate parole for second-and third-time offenders.)

The commonwealth does implement an “earn time” program that helps offenders trim their sentences by participating in certain programs. More is clearly needed. A policy brief recently released by the Commonwealth Foundation offered several good ideas – including drug courts for first-time offenders, releasing non-violent offenders charged with only possession, and using more electronic monitoring. The report is also significant because the policy group is known for being very conservative, providing cover for Republicans to work on this issue.

Current policies have led not only to a human tragedy, but a fiscal nightmare.

We hope Rendell takes another look at his assumptions about prison spending. He might also take a look at recent actions by the city that cut the prison population by a 1,000 in one year.

This is one budget decision that needs serious correction. *