Alternative sentencing slows prison cost increases


Two alternative sentencing programs are decreasing state prison costs and population, but restricted access to the programs is limiting further savings, some officials say.

“Alternative sentencing cuts a lot of government waste in the Department of Corrections by reducing recidivism and prison terms for nonviolent offenders, but they are underutilized because district attorneys have veto power (over who enters the programs) and eligibility requirements are very stringent,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

From 1980 to 2010, the state Department of Corrections budget increased by more than 1,700 percent, from $94 million to $1.7 billion. During that period, the prison population swelled from 8,243 inmates to 51,321 inmates, forcing the state to seek alternatives to sending criminals to prison.

According to the most recent monthly inmate population report in June, the department has a bed capacity of 44,196 for an inmate population of 51,290, forcing prisons to use temporary buildings to house inmates.

In the recently passed state budget, the Department of Corrections accounted for 7.4 percent, or $1.89 billion, of the general fund. That’s the third largest chunk behind allocations for education and for public welfare.

Two alternative sentencing programs — State Intermediate Punishment and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive — were passed into law in 2005 and 2008, respectively. Both have saved taxpayers $43 million since their inceptions, according to the Department of Corrections, but some officials say these programs would be more effective if more eligible inmates could participate.

The Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive allows for reduced minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders in exchange for good behavior and participation in crime-reducing programs during incarceration, with the goal of keeping released inmates from returning to prison. The state estimates the 1,167 Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive inmates, about 2 percent of inmate population, who were released from prison, saved the state $11.4 million since the initiative began.

Recidivism occurs when offenders are rearrested or reincarcerated for the same behavior after their release. The most recent 2010 corrections department inmate profile report indicates 50.4 percent of inmates were rearrested and 43.9 percent were reincarcerated within three years of their release in 2007.

Under the State Intermediate Punishment program, a person convicted of a drug-related crime would serve a 24-month sentence, at least seven months of which will be served in prison. The remainder of the sentence is spent in a community-based therapeutic community for a minimum of two months and a minimum of six months in outpatient treatment.

Outpatient treatment for State Intermediate Punishment takes place in state-run facilities and costs $20 less a day than keeping an inmate in a state prison, said Susan Bensinger, press secretary for the corrections department.

Six-month reincarceration rates are 2.3 percent for State Intermediate Punishment graduates and 15.6 percent for a comparable group of other offenders. One-year rates are 6.4 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively. The department estimates the 993 current State Intermediate Punishment graduates, about 2 percent of the total inmate population, saved the state $31.5 million since the program started.

Offenders with past criminal records involving violent, sex, personal injury and deadly-weapon crimes are ineligible for the programs, but only a small portion of those eligible are actually being enrolled. Most inmates in the program are in prison for drug offenses.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, said relaxed eligibility restrictions would generally enable greater access to the programs for inmates by giving courts greater discretion to decide which offenders get into the programs.

“Those programs have a pretty long list of ineligible offenses,” said Bergstrom. “When you categorically remove people from consideration, you exclude people who might benefit from the programs.”

According to the corrections department, of the estimated 9,676 offenders who were eligible for State Intermediate Punishment, fewer than 2,500 were court referred for entry.

Bensinger said the main reason the State Intermediate Punishment acceptance rate is so low is that judges, district attorneys and even offenders may veto a convict from entering the program.

Legislation introduced this session by Greenleaf would remove the district attorney’s veto over who could enter the program, with the goal of getting more inmates into State Intermediate Punishment.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association, said his organization supports State Intermediate Punishment, but he said he is concerned about the potential changes.

“It is important that the (district attorney) maintain the ability to veto someone from entering the program because of the knowledge that the (district attorney) has about that particular offender,” Long said.

Under the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive, courts are required by law to offer all eligible offenders a shorter minimum sentence and a traditional minimum sentence.

The Corrections Department budgeted $32.4 million in state funds in 2010 to provide alcohol and drug treatment to reduce recidivism.

About 70 percent of the Department of Corrections’ budget pays for employees’ salaries and benefits with remaining funds going toward expenses such as housing inmates and prison operating costs, according to state officials.

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