Pennsylvania Dramatically Lowers State Prison Population in the Wake of Policy Changes

January 18, 2019

[UPDATED: March 26, 2019]

In 2018, Pennsylvania’s state prison population decreased by more than a thousand people, or 2.2 percent, which is the largest recorded year-over-year decrease in the state’s history. The drop is due to decreases in admissions to prison for both new crimes and parole revocations.

Governor Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel attributed the dramatic decrease, in part, to criminal justice system policy changes that have occurred in recent years, such as diversion from prison to community corrections facilities for people who violate certain conditions of parole. The state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) legislation, which passed in 2012, also spurred the decrease. Parole process inefficiencies were eliminated, community corrections bed space was prioritized for people on parole who were at a high risk of reoffending, and length of stay in prison for parole violators was reduced.

Since 2012, the state’s prison population has decreased by 4,223 people and is nearly 27 percent lower than it would have been without the JRI legislation. As a result, the state’s corrections budget is 23 percent lower ($543 million) than it would have been without these policy changes.

JRI 2, another policy package designed to further lower the prison population and reinvest savings in strategies to reduce recidivism and increase public safety, will be considered in the 2019 legislative session. This package is expected to lower the prison population by an estimated 700 people by 2023, with the majority of this reduction stemming from a measure that would require certain people convicted of nonviolent offenses to be released to parole after serving their minimum sentence. All together, these policies would save the state more than $48 million, nearly half of which would be reinvested in improvements to the criminal justice system, including county probation.

Learn more about Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system successes in the fiscal year 2019–20 budget testimony delivered by John Wetzel.


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-ZB-BX-K001 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

You might also be interested in

Justice Reinvestment Bills in Kansas Aim to Reduce Recidivism

A package of criminal justice bills aiming to keep people with substance use disorders out of prison and…

Read More

Prioritizing Prison over Substance Use Treatment Costs Kansans Safety and Money

Not only is treatment a more cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars than prison, but it works.

Read More

Justice Reinvestment in Action: Oregon Invests $10 Million Locally to Improve Criminal Justice, Behavioral Health Outcomes

After authorizing $10.6 million to help people with behavioral health issues get treatment and avoid costly stays in…

Read More