Time for Pa. to end its prison-industrial complex

Pennsylvania's Graterford Prison in Montgomery County.

One of the challenges of the Trump era in America is that we can't forget about the important issues that aren't swept up in the daily maelstrom of Trumpworld. On the national stage -- and to a certain extent, on the local level as well -- a number of important topics seem to have been pushed to the back burner while we fight over immigration and Obamacare. Like the opioid-abuse crisis. Or the struggles of low-wage workers. And improving police-community relations and reducing violence.

And then there's mass incarceration.

On an alternative planet somewhere, the struggle to reduce the bat-guano crazy number of folks who are locked in America -- more than any other developed nation, by a longshot -- would be having a moment. And the issue may indeed get its due...in Hollywood, where filmmaker Ava DuVernay is up for an Academy Award for the haunting documentary "13th," which makes a compelling argument that the disproportionate number of African-Americans behind bars is the moral successor to slavery and Jim Crow. But in Washington, Barack Obama -- the first president to call out mass incarceration as a significant issue -- has been replaced with the "law-and-order" POTUS in Trump. taking justice reform off that table.

Here at home, Pennsylvania would seem the perfect laboratory for reducing the enormous social and economic costs of locking away so many people for so many prime years of their life. Consider these statistics: From 1980 until 2012, the prison population here in the Keystone State skyrocketed by some 500 percent. During that same period, taxpayers popped for the construction of eight new prisons, at about $200 million a pop. And spending on incarceration rose by about 1,700 percent, making the prison system one of the largest line items in Pennsylvania's ever-strapped budget.

Now, I know what you're saying -- that I probably pulled these stats from some leftist, patchouli-scented blog, right? Actually, no -- I got them from the website of the Commonwealth Foundation, the state's leading conservative think tank. Because if any issue can bridge the great political divide in 2017 America, it should be mass incarceration. To be sure, the debate has largely been driven by liberals questioning the social injustice of long sentences for offenders who are too often non-violent and disproportionately non-white. But a growing number of thoughtful conservatives are also worried about the massive power of the state to deprive individuals of their liberty, and to expropriate massive amounts of dollars in doing so.

Pennsylvania's recent efforts to promote alternatives to incarceration has finally turned this battleship ever so slightly, with a nearly 4 percent drop in prison population from the peak. And with Harrisburg facing yet another budget crisis, there seemed to be an opportunity to take a bigger step in the right direction. Earlier this month, the Wolf administration proposed shutting down two state prisons -- from a list of five -- in a move estimated to save $80 million in the first fiscal year.

You won't believe what happened next. OK, maybe you will. Pennsylvania's prison-industrial complex sprung into action. Lawmakers from both parties, backed by correctional workers, cried foul -- citing safety concerns but mainly the potential loss of jobs that would hurt rural counties that are already struggling economically. Already, Wolf has partly backed away -- proposing instead that just one prison, in Pittsburgh, close. That's because the city's economy can better absorb the job loss.

The debate -- which is far from over, as Pittsburgh-area lawmakers continue to fight to keep that prison, the oldest in the state system. open -- proves one thing. The notion of locking up thousands of people -- many of them from Philadelphia and other urban areas -- to create jobs in rural counties where prisons have become the No. 1 employer has become much too deeply ingrained in the lifeblood of the Pennsylvania economy.

And so the politics of this has become far too crazy to do this piecemeal, as the Wolf administration is learning right now. Pennsylvania needs to make deep cuts in the number of inmates and, ultimately, the number of facilities -- but it's going to have to have a plan. In the late 1990s, the feds used a base-closing commission to reduce the size of the military and bypass a lot of the inevitable politics. Maybe it's time for Pennsylvania to launch a prison-closing commission -- one that will also work with local police and prosecutors to steadily bring prison populations back toward saner, pre-1980s levels. And work with those rural counties to develop real, sustainable jobs that aren't dependent on a phony "war on drugs" and mandatory minimum sentences.

What we have right now -- a schools-to-prison pipeline, in a state that has steadily cut its spending on classrooms but lacks the political will to take the budget axe to incarceration -- is not sustainable. It's not fiscally sustainable. Much more importantly, it's not morally sustainable. At this point, the only debate our politicians -- liberal or conservative -- should be having about mass incarceration is how quickly we can abolish it.