Pennsylvania cut its prison population by just over a thousand inmates during 2018 — a figure equivalent to the population of one entire state prison.
“The 2018 calendar year reduction represents the single largest year-over-year decrease of inmate population on record,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement that credited the decline in part to reforms instituted under his administration. “The historic decline demonstrates that commonsense criminal justice reforms work, and bolsters the case for expanding reforms while ensuring the safety of all citizens.”
The 2.2 percent reduction left the prison population at 47,370, the lowest it’s been in about a decade and just above 2007 levels. The number of prisoners newly sentenced to state prison fell by 617 people compared with 2017, while the number of parole violators declined by 575.
Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel attributed the latter decrease to diversion for technical violators made possible by the consolidation of the Department of Corrections and the state parole board, which Wolf did by executive order after efforts to do so legislatively were unsuccessful.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank, also said the decline was part of a trend tracking Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a package of legislation designed to reduce prison spending that passed in 2012, when the population was at its peak at more than 51,000 inmates.
A second legislative package, called JRI 2, failed to pass in the last session. It was projected to further reduce the prison population through changes such as automatically paroling certain prisoners on their minimum sentence dates if they had behaved well in prison. The idea was that the savings would be reinvested in funding probation and parole to reduce recidivism.
"Only a decade ago, Pennsylvania was shipping inmates to other states because of overcrowding,” Wetzel said in a statement. Recently, as its state prison population has declined, Pennsylvania has at times accepted inmates from out of state.
In November 2018, Delaware announced it would pay $40,000 per day to house 330 prisoners at Camp Hill state prison under a two-year agreement. Vermont, which had placed more than 200 prisoners in Pennsylvania, moved them to a private prison in Mississippi last fall after three men died in custody, and many others complained about access to medical care and lengthy terms of disciplinary confinement that exceeded Vermont’s 30-day maximum, according to news reports.