Good news: Pa. prison population is finally falling

Last year, the Department of Corrections consumed about $2 billion, 7 percent of the total state budget. For the past ten years, the prison population and budget have been growing at a steady pace. Now, days before Gov. Tom Corbett's budget address, the Associated Press is reporting that trend might finally be showing signs of slowing.

There is definitely something unusual going on in Pennsylvania's inmate population, which stood at 51,273 at the end of last month.

The numbers even fell by nearly 200 inmates from a year ago, although the population remains more than 5,000 higher than in January 2008.

That means that although the prison population is increasing, it's happening at a slower rate than expected. If this trend continues, Pennsylvania could finally see significant savings in costs associated with the criminal justice system. Already, state officials have canceled the construction of a prison, saving $200 million. If the prison population continues to decline, Pennsylvania might be able to close more facilities, the key to major savings in the system.

So how did this start to happen? There are many reasons, such as the end of a parole moratorium imposed during the Rendell Administration. But one big factor was the willingness of state lawmakers to re-think the so-called “War on Drugs.”

[State lawmakers passed] a 2008 package of sentencing changes that gave nonviolent offenders - many of them convicted of drug offenses - shorter prison terms with certain conditions, such as addiction treatment or other therapeutic programs. The Corrections Department credits that for cutting the prison population by 650 so far.

These reforms seem similar to recent changes to how local prosecutors handle cases involving small amounts of Marijuana. Instead of seeking the maximum sentence, the District Attorney's Office mostly seeks summary convictions, which involve no jail time and a small fine. The DA's office estimates they'll save $2 million in the first year.

These are all good first steps. For too many years, policymakers have embraced an aggressive approach to relatively minor drug crimes. As a result, the prison population has soared without major changes in crime patterns. Unless we pursue smarter polices, we'll keep throwing away money by putting people behind bars.

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