HARRISBURG - After months of closed-door talks, the Rendell administration has quietly rolled out a far-reaching legislative package to overhaul the state's crowded prison system that would include releasing some criminals early.

The package, outlined in a letter to legislative leaders, includes a plan to get nonviolent offenders out of jail and into programs designed to make sure they don't recommit their offense. People serving time on drug charges and petty theft would be among those eligible.

"These reforms will increase the safety of our citizens and slow the rise in correction costs," Donna Cooper, Gov. Rendell's policy secretary, wrote in an e-mail. "Both of these goals are necessary and urgent."

State and county jails contain nearly 80,000 inmates.

Other aspects of the governor's package aim to cut prison costs by streamlining prisoner transportation, paperwork and parole administration. This year, the Department of Corrections received $1.6 billion in state funding, or 6 percent of the state's overall $27.2 billion budget.

The proposal also would transfer some inmates serving sentences between two and five years from county to state prisons. That change could add about 2,500 inmates - at least 700 from Philadelphia alone - to the approxmately 45,600 in state prisons, according to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. Those inmates cost the counties $45 million a year, the commissioners report.

State prisons are better-equipped than county jails to handle more serious offenders, according to House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) and other advocates of the change, including the county commissioners and district attorneys.

The administration said the state system, though overbooked, could absorb the transfers with the early-release programs in place: The changes are expected to open up hundreds of state-prison beds, and save dollars, in coming years.

The Corrections Department estimated that, based on 2006 statistics, about 3,500 inmates would have been eligible that year for the recidivism reduction program.

"We were really out of step with what's happening in the rest of the country by leaving it up to the counties to deal with more serious long-term offenders," said Sarah Hart, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who helped broker the deal.

Philadelphia's prisons are badly crowded.

On Aug. 6, Philadelphia's prison population hit 9,123, more than double the average of 4,000 in the late 1980s.

In an interview last week, Rendell said he had not decided whether to push for the changes in the fall, when his agenda will be packed, or make them his priority for 2008.

But O'Brien said he was determined to tackle the issue when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month.

The proposals are the result of months-long negotiations among several groups, including the administration, House leaders, district attorneys and county commissioners.

Among the issues that negotiators faced were how to allocate prisoners between the state and county systems and how to work with sentencing and parole guidelines. And they had to satisfy a legislature protective of its reputation for being tough on crime.

Although all aspects of Rendell's package will affect how Pennsylvania deals with its prisoners, Hart said offering early release in exchange for joining rehabilitation programs was the most controversial.

Earlier versions of the legislation, she said, would have extended the option to current prisoners. But district attorneys across the state fought to keep the program limited to nonviolent offenders entering the state system after the legislation's approval.

The district attorneys were concerned about retroactively changing sentences, Hart said.

County judges can release some prisoners early for good behavior, but that practice is not tied to any formal rehabilitation program and does not apply to state inmates, many of whom have committed more serious crimes.

Although the district attorneys have signed off on it, the early-release provision could face fierce opposition from lawmakers concerned that such a policy might appear soft on crime.

"At some level, state offenders are more serious than county offenders, and different standards have traditionally been in place," said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

'Not just Pennsylvania'

Nonetheless, many states balancing exploding inmate populations and rising costs are looking closely at programs such as Rendell's. Those programs also seek to attack the root causes of crime by offering release to get inmates to complete drug-treatment, educational or other therapy programs, Bergstrom said.

"It's not just Pennsylvania. I think most states are looking at it because we all spend a lot of money on the corrections systems as a whole," he said.

Prison populations will rise through 2011 in all states except Connecticut, New York and Delaware, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. In Pennsylvania, the state-prison population spiked 21 percent from 2000 to 2006, and is expanding by an average of 125 inmates a month, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said this year.

Of the 27 state prisons, 24 are overcrowded, according to the Corrections Department. Even the state's newest prison is over capacity. The head count at the nearly 2,000-bed Forest County facility, opened in 2004, was 2,038 as of July 31.

With that rate of growth, the state's system will run out of beds by the end of 2012, Beard said.

Saving money

He said the early-release proposal was modeled after a program that New York launched in 1997. There, inmates who completed rehab programs in exchange for earlier release proved 12 percent less likely to return to jail than criminals who didn't participate, Beard said.

That and other prison changes saved New York taxpayers $258 million in operational costs and averted the need to spend $15 million on new construction between 1997 and 2004, Beard said.

Cooper, Rendell's policy secretary, said an alluring aspect of the plan was that it might forestall the need for new prisons, which cost $150 million.

With the proposed incentives to enter rehab, therapy and educational programs, "you'll reduce your recidivism by 25 percent. That's what the governor wants," Cooper said.

There is a contingency plan if the early-release effort stalls, Cooper said: The budget includes money awaiting Rendell's signature to build at least two state prisons on existing prison sites, including Graterford in Montgomery County.

It's that threat of expensive construction that might push lawmakers to consider Rendell's plan, advocates of the policy said.

"The projections of doing nothing are staggering," O'Brien said.

COMING TOMORROW

Philadelphia's prison population is at an all-time high, and the system is being pushed to its limits. Find out in tomorrow's paper what is being done to alleviate the problem.

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Contact Sarina Rosenberg at rosenbs@phillynews.com.