HARRISBURG - Three bills designed to reduce prison time for nonviolent offenders passed the state Senate yesterday, and supporters said the measures would save taxpayer money, relieve Pennsylvania's crowded prisons and reduce crime rates.
The bills, which passed without debate, now go to the House of Representatives. They have the backing of state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard and the prisoner advocacy group, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, although the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association opposes some aspects.
The sponsor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said the bills would provide smarter sentencing and treatment options, such as counseling instead of prison for technical parole violators. Meanwhile, nonviolent offenders often spend more time in prison than warranted at a cost to taxpayers of about $35,000 per year, he said.
"We're just throwing everyone in there because that's the only alternative we have," Greenleaf said in an interview. "It's very expensive and imprecise."
Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, estimated that within a few years the bills will save the state $100 million annually, based on studies by various state agencies that show a reduction in prison population by more than 10,000 by 2013. The Corrections Department budget is about $1.8 billion this year.
Under one bill, county probation and parole offices would provide judges with pre-sentence reports that analyze the best type of treatment for offenders, whether a stiff prison sentence or counseling that will help them avoid a repeat offense.
The result will be better-tailored sentences that take advantage of scientific studies, Greenleaf said.
The approach "really signifies a shifting of the paradigm away from a purely punitive response to crime and to a much more corrective approach," said William DiMascio, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Another bill would allow some inmates who are within 18 months of reaching their minimum sentence to complete counseling and other pre-release programs in a community corrections center rather than in prison.
Getting the counseling in community settings, rather than in the isolation of prison, improves the chances that the offender won't end up back in prison, Greenleaf said.
Of the three bills, it drew the most "no" votes, passing 26-21, and is opposed by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Association President Ed Marsico, the Dauphin County district attorney, said he believes it will endanger public safety because it would allow offenders to go to community corrections centers before they're eligible for parole.
Those centers are not secure, allowing people there to come and go unchecked, he said.
A third bill would allow the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole to create alternative punishment guidelines for technical parole violations, like testing positive for drugs or skipping a meeting with a parole officer.