Prisons Redux

The last Pennsylvania Republican governor who was a former prosecutor named Tom used his first year in office to push law-and-order measures that led to more prisons, mandatory sentences and an explosion of prison populations and budgets.

That was Tom Ridge, who'd been an assistant DA in Erie before elected to Congress then the governorship, and that was 17 years ago.

Now, Tom Corbett, a former Allegheny County assistant DA, former U.S. Attorney and former attorney general, is set to sign legislation aimed at greatly reducing prison populatons and budgets.

How things change, eh?

It seems all that lock-`em-up talk and expense didn't really cut crime but really cost taxpayers.

A chief architect of the efforts in `90's, Montgomery County Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, also a former prosecutor, told the Inky earlier this year we went from seven state prisons in the 1980's to 27 today, from a prison population of 8,000 to more than 50,000.

Each prison, he said, costs $200 million to build and $50 million a-year to run.

"I'd spend all that money and more if I thought it was helping public safety. But it's not," Greenleaf said.

During a Senate floor speech Monday, Greenleaf noted violent crime went up and 44 percent of those released from prison ended up back in within three years.

"That was a failed criminal-justice policy,” Greenleaf said.

So now the Legislature has sent Corbett a bill to reverse the policy and reduce prison populations by using community-based programs for non-violent offenders and stressing job training and education to reduce recidivism.

Administration estimates are it will save taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars over the next five years. The governor is expected to sign it soon.

It's all an example of how public policy formed in the politics of the moment can be misguided and have unintended consequences. And it's proof that (even if it takes time) bad policy can be reversed and its consequences can be addressed.