THE STATE Corrections Department caused a stir last week by releasing a proposal to close two state prisons. That reverses a trend of recent decades when the state scrambled to build prisons to meet the growing number of inmates.
There's been only a slight decline in prisoners - there are about 49,000 in state penal institutions - so having empty cells wasn't what motivated Corrections Commissioner John Wetzel. Nor was it a philosophical desire to ease up on long sentences that demand incarceration. Wetzel is a jailer. He doesn't make criminal justice policy.
His motivation was strictly financial. Running prisons is expensive. At $2.4 billion, the Corrections Department has the third largest budget in state government. The state faces a large deficit this year - upward to $2 billion by some counts. Wetzel was doing his part in trying to trim costs. Closing two prisons could save anywhere from $90 million to $160 million a year.
Who could oppose closing prisons? As it turns out, a lot of people.
Wetzel will narrow a list of five down to a final two by the end of this month. He's already gotten blowback from legislators with prisons in their districts. Many are located in rural areas and tend to be large employers in their areas.
You could call Waymart State Prison the Walmart of Wayne County, with 706 employees and an annual budget of $96 million. It's on the list.
Legislators have promised hearings on the proposed closures, and we say bring them on. But rather than talking about closing Prison A and moving inmates to Prison B, we think it is time to examine our whole policy of incarceration centered on this question: Is there a better way?
It costs the taxpayers an average of $48,715 a year to house an inmate in the state prison. That's $134 a day, double the price of an overnight stay in your average chain motel.
Ideally, prisons are supposed to rehabilitate convicts, but there's little evidence that happens.
In Pennsylvania, nearly 60 percent of the prisoners released today will be back in jail within three years because they either committed a new crime or violated the terms of parole. Philadelphia sent 3,800 people to state prisons in 2015. Of that number, 49 percent went back because of parole violations.
Some people - Wetzel included - think that lowering the recidivism rate is the key to lowering the prison population. In Philadelphia, a group called the Reentry Coalition that is trying to do just that - through education, job training and tax breaks to employers who hire ex-convicts.
Philadelphia is doing its best to deal with these issues. But rather than complaining about prisons being closed or inmates shifted, the Legislature should look deeply into ways to deal with the total picture.
A good first step would be an independent commission to look at the problem and recommend best practices. In the long run, the way to lower prison costs is to reduce the number of prisoners. In the short run, the Legislature should seize the moment and search for the best ways to meet that goal.
The incentive is easy to see. Each person diverted from prison saves $48,715 a year.