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Trend Reflects Wise Reforms

January 13, 2019

Pennsylvania’s prison population declined by a record number in 2018, which not only reflects sound changes in state policy but makes a case for more. According to the state Department of Corrections, the prison population declined by 1,068 last year, bringing the total number to 47,370. The decline was the sixth in the last seven years, bringing the total reduction over that period to 3,814 — truly remarkable considering that the state prison population had declined in just three years over the preceding 40 years. In Pennsylvania, the average annual cost for a state prisoner is more than $42,000. The 2018 population reduction, at that average cost, is worth about $44 million to taxpayers. Over the last seven years, the total reduction is worth $160 million a year. But that is only the figure in direct costs. Reducing the population also translates into giving more people, who otherwise would be in jail, opportunities to return to society and become productive workers and contributors to their families. The reductions flow directly from the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2012, which switched the criminal justice from mandatory minimum sentences to alternative sentencing, specialty courts that focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, and other innovative methods. Even better news than the reduction in prison population is that crime rates steadily have decreased over the same period, allaying fears that reducing the prison population would drive increases in crime. The trends should encourage further reforms. Last year the state Senate passed a second Justice Reinvestment Act known as JRI2, but it languished in the House. It likely would accelerate the safe decline in the prison population by reforming parole practices, further refining sentencing guidelines and providing more support for county probation offices in an effort to further reduce recidivism. Given the success of the earlier reforms, lawmakers quickly should introduce the bill in the new session and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf, who supports it. Criminal justice reform already is a bipartisan success story and has the potential to be even more so in coming years if lawmakers follow up on their own success.

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