Jeffrey Beard proposes releasing short-term state prisoners to halfway houses

Prison head: Release short-term state inmates to halfway houses
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
By Tom Barnes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG — The head of the state prison system today outlined steps that could be taken at little or no cost to free up as many as 2,000 prison beds statewide and save the state $200 million, the cost of a new prison.

Current law prevents the Department of Corrections from sending newly jailed inmates — even those with a “short sentence,” meaning less than a year to serve — to community correctional facilities or halfway houses, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

All new inmates now must go to state prison for the first nine months of their sentence. Since more than 3,500 inmates with short sentences enter the prison system each year, they are a major driver of the state’s prison-overcrowding problem.

“In many ways, it makes little sense to tie up our valuable and costly prison beds for what, in large part, are less-serious offenders,” Mr. Beard said. Halfway houses can be used for inmates convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes; they sleep there but can leave during the day for jobs or schooling.

The state’s 27 existing prisons now have more than 51,000 inmates, up from 45,000 just five years ago. The overcrowding situation is forcing the state to send 2,000 inmates this month to prisons in Michigan and Virginia, and also forcing Corrections to build three new prisons, in Center, Montgomery and Fayette counties, over the next several years.

The ever-growing inmate population also is causing Corrections’ annual budget to approach $2 billion, the third highest amount in the state budget after education and public welfare.

Mr. Beard also pushed for creating new judicial facilities called “specialty courts,” to handle people who commit crimes that result from their problems with alcohol, drugs or mental illness, rather than forcing them to be handled, as now, in the Common Pleas Court system. He also advocated giving judges more latitude in sending people convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes to facilities called “boot camps” rather than county jails or state prisons.

Finally, he called for reducing the number of “technical parole violators,” meaning parolees who are sent back to prison to serve out their full terms after committing “technical” violations, such as failing to attend meetings with parole officers.

“Technical parole violators are a significant driver” of the prison population, he said. “About 3,000 inmates were returned for a technical violation in 2008 and the average offender served 14 months.”

Such steps would require new legislation but could save the state up to $60 million and empty up to 2,000 existing prison beds, Mr. Beard told senators. Since most new prisons have room for 2,000 inmates, freeing up 2,000 beds throughout the existing system could avert the need to build one new prison and save the state $200 million, he added.

It also could permit the state bring back the inmates that are being farmed out to the other states.

Some of the money saved also could be spent to hire additional parole officers, which in turn could lead to putting more nonviolent inmates on parole and free up even more bed space, he added.

This summer, the state Department of General Services hopes to begin building its first new prison, a 2,000-bed facility in Center County near the existing State Correctional Institution Rockville.

Also planned is a 4,000-bed, $400 million prison in Montgomery County, which could break ground in early 2011 and would replace the aging SCI Graterford. And General Services soon will announce the exact site in Fayette County where another $200 million prison, holding 2,000 inmates, will be built.

State officials are under serious pressure from opposite sides on the issue of new prison construction. Because of growing demands on the state budget — and the desire to avoid tax increases — they are looking for ways to reduce spending, such as avoiding the need to build so many new prisons.

But freeing up existing beds by paroling more nonviolent inmates convicted of lesser crimes also carries risks because sometimes a parolee commits another crime, such as happened in Philadelphia two years ago, when an inmate on parole shot and killed a city police officer.