Smarter budgeting on Pa. prisons
By Caitlin J. Taylor
Many may see Gov. Corbett's record-setting allotment for the corrections system - $2 billion in his proposed state budget - and rightly argue that this astronomical amount of taxpayer money could be better spent on education, health care, or other social services.
While such spending would do dramatically more to improve public safety than continuing to impose unnecessarily long incarceration terms for Pennsylvania's 50,000 inmates, this corrections budget could potentially improve public safety if the money is spent on improving the chances that released individuals do not return to a life of crime following their release.
As some of my recent research has revealed, a critical factor in the success of returning citizens is the extent to which they have emotional support from family members following their release. Emotional support can help recent former inmates psychologically cope with all of the obstacles related to their reentry, including employment restrictions, substance-abuse problems, and housing bans. In contrast, a lack of emotional support from family members may stigmatize returning citizens and increase the likelihood that they internalize a criminal identity as opposed to a law-abiding one.
Despite our knowledge about the extent to which family relationships can be critical to returning citizens' success, current correctional budgets fail to sufficiently support programs or policies that can encourage such family relationships. Rather, many current policies actually damage family relationships.
In order for supportive relationships to be in place following someone's release from prison or jail, efforts need to be made to maintain family ties and other positive relationships during incarceration. Eliminating the use of exploitatively priced collect calls could help economically disadvantaged families keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones. And by allotting funds to support the increased use of video-conferencing, especially affordable options such as Skype, the state could easily do more to help keep family members connected.
A portion of the corrections budget should also be used to influence family members' willingness and ability to regularly visit incarcerated individuals in person. Providing assistance to family members traveling long distances to prisons, extending visiting hours, relaxing the restrictions on visitors, and softening the harsh realities of the prison environment could increase the likelihood that family members maintain contact and are subsequently a potential source of emotional support following a loved one's release.
To improve the quality of family relationships, programs within correctional institutions should fund family counseling services to assist with mending disrupted families, to build positive relationships, and to formulate plans to assist individuals once they are released. Recreational opportunities, including sporting events and other activities, could also help preserve family ties.
While evidence suggests that these types of initiatives could improve public safety and save taxpayer money, many will undeniably claim that such efforts are being "soft on criminals." However, we know that longer, harsher prison sentences are actually associated with an increased likelihood of reoffending - perhaps partially because of the fact that positive family ties are more likely to break down over long periods of incarceration. Considering this, community-based alternatives to incarceration - or at least shorter sentences - would help to maintain family support systems.
Rational leadership will be needed to convincingly justify budgets that emphasize the humane treatment of our fellow Pennsylvanians who may have engaged in undesirable past behaviors. We must decide whether we want this massive corrections budget to be used to maintain the status quo - more prisons, more disruption of families, and more crime - or be used to treat individuals humanely and actually improve public safety.
With $2 billion being the most ever allotted to corrections in Pennsylvania, and with our state having the sixth highest number of inmates nationwide, we are in a prime position to demonstrate more compassionate corrections spending that yields a real return on our investments.
Caitlin Taylor is assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. firstname.lastname@example.org