John Baer | Speaker has plan to cut city crime

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AS THE MURDER count climbs, mayoral wannabes posture and the current mayor hides (a reader suggests we put his picture on milk cartons), there's an effort afoot to change the prison system and maybe help Philly lose its growing rep as national home of the homicide.

State House Speaker Denny O'Brien is offering a multi-bill package of changes to a system he calls outdated, inefficient and a major contributor to city crime woes. It would, he says, "Incarcerate those who have to be incarcerated," reduce recidivism and save the city money.

Normally, a state House pol's suggestions aren't worth much more than a mention.

But O'Brien, a Republican from the Northeast, is now speaker, which means there's a lot better chance of his getting what he wants. He has a history of pushing law-and-order and support from district attorneys, county commissioners and victim-advocate groups, which means he's not out on a limb. And he plans to push for passage before the end of June.

And, look, I understand that no law alone gets to root causes of violent urban crime. One can't legislate personal responsibility or spark societal shifts overnight.

Plus, some of what O'Brien's talking about should have been done 10 years ago, and (like health-care leaders) leaders in criminal justice ought to be ashamed of the system in place.

But that's no reason not to try to fix it.

Anything that cuts costs, red tape, prison overcrowding and recidivism contributes significantly to efforts to cut crime; at a minimum it allows greater concentration on more serious crime.

So O'Brien this week seeks bipartisan co-sponsors to, among other things, save counties the cost of transporting state inmates for court hearings by using video-conferencing; refocus resources on violent criminals, especially repeat offenders, and replace extended jail time for nonviolent crimes with treatment and training.

"New York state increased drug-rehab treatment and job training and their prison population is dropping," says O'Brien.

New York's Department of Correctional Services confirms this. In fact, prison population declined in each of the last six years, due in part to a program putting many offenders into 90- day intensive drug treatment rather than nine months of regular jail.

Prison population in Pennsylvania?

"It's the highest ever [45,333 inmates in 26 prisons] and it keeps going up and up," says Sue McNaughton of the state Department of Corrections.

O'Brien wants to push nonviolent criminals out of prison faster, hopefully sending them home better off than when they came in.

His legislation establishes, for the first time, probation and parole guidelines for when inmates should be released. It allows judges to grant reduced jail time for those successfully completing job training or drug and alcohol programs while in prison.

This not only saves on high-cost incarceration but also better prepares those leaving prison for jobs and life back home.

O'Brien also seeks to ease Philly's prison overcrowding by sending anyone sentenced to two-to-five years to state prison. He notes Gov. Rendell's budget includes state prison expansions to cover the change.

D.A. Lynne Abraham says there are 2,000 felons among Philly's 8,900 overcrowded prisoners, maybe 600 serving state sentences, adding, "It's a tremendous resource burden because Philly foots the entire bill."

She backs O'Brien's plan to change the sentencing law, and also supports better-targeted treatment as a way of "transforming lives."

The key here is these things can actually happen and have lasting positive impact.

It might make headlines to call for 300, 500 or 1,000 more cops with no realistic way of paying for them. Or to call for new gun-control legislation with no realistic chance of it passing.

But city and state pols ought to make progress instead of headlines, and O'Brien's proposals strike me as one way to do so. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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