Kyle, a convicted burglar sentenced to one to three years in Pennsylvania state prison, was granted parole in June 2011, but spent an extra 100 days in jail, not because he failed to serve time for his crime, but because he couldn't pay an administrative fine. According to the Department of Corrections, he owed $13.70.
For the grand sum of $13.70, Kyle (not his real name) was kept incarcerated, preventing him from rejoining his 4-year-old daughter and the workforce that could help pay his fine. This bureaucratic nightmare is but one symptom of an ailing system that begs to be cured by commonsense reform.
Over the past 30 years, Pennsylvania's incarceration rate exploded by more than 500 percent, to more than 50,000 inmates, requiring the construction of 18 new prisons, at a cost of $200 million and millions more annually to maintain. As a result, spending on the state Department of Corrections grew 1,700 percent.
Despite a cost of $35,000 per inmate per year to lock up more people for longer periods, research demonstrates that state prisons do not make offenders less likely to commit crimes after release, and they may make them more likely to do so. In fact, nearly 45 percent of Pennsylvania parolees return to prison within three years, making for a corrections system that simply isn't correcting enough.
Ultimately, this unprecedented population growth was caused not by an increase in crime, but by a bureaucratic breakdown. In contrast, several states with a variety of political leanings, including New York, Florida, Texas, and Hawaii, have significantly reduced their crime and imprisonment over the past decade.
Some of these proven reforms require basic improvements in system efficiency. Currently, an offender granted parole serves, on average, an additional 101 days in prison. On average, taxpayers spend an extra $9,000 per inmate for this needless layover, while parolees are prevented from rejoining their families and the workforce.
Simple improvements would ensure these wasteful costs need not be borne by taxpayers and inmates. Tightening up the parole hearing process to ensure inmates likely to be paroled are considered first, better managing drug- and alcohol-treatment waiting lists, and allowing inmates to pay minor fines when they can get a job outside prison would shorten extra stays.
Moreover, we need legislative reform to keep low-risk cases out of prison and implement less expensive, more effective sentences. Risk assessment prior to sentencing can identify cases that would be better managed through alternatives to prison. Options like electronic monitoring have proven to be less expensive and more effective for nonviolent offenders. A Florida study found offenders on GPS monitoring were 31 percent less likely to return to prison.
Furthermore, drug, veteran, and mental health courts allow intensive judicial oversight of offenders, identifying those who need prison time and those who are better served by treatment and supervision. Several Pennsylvania counties already use drug and mental health courts, and expanding these statewide would better remediate offenders and deter future crime.
Paramount to any successful reform, correction changes should reduce the number of individuals returning to prison after release. Graduated sanctions, where technical probation violations (not new crimes) are met with a swift and certain response — such as stricter reporting requirements, a curfew, or even a night in jail — have reduced the number of positive drug screenings and new arrests, according to research submitted to the National Institute of Justice.
In the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, drug offenders must make a phone call to officials every morning to see if they have to report to court to take a drug test. If they fail, they are immediately jailed for a few days and can be imprisoned longer-term for multiple failures. HOPE reduced positive drug screens by more than 70 percent and cut both revocations and new arrests in half.
Reforming our corrections system is not soft on crime — it's smart on crime. By doing so, we can ensure people like Kyle are not only punished for their crimes, but are able to pay back society by being a productive, permanent part of it.