By Steve Esack
Barely ahead of Friday’s looming budget deadline, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders on Monday received a last-minute idea for saving more than $100 million in coming years in part by shaving five months off some non-violent offenders’ sentences.
Shaving the time, streamlining state sentencing guidelines and providing county probation services more state aid could trim the state Corrections Department’s $2.4 billion budget, according to a report issued by Justice Reinvestment, a bipartisan group of state, county and local legislative, criminal justice and judicial officials.
Most of that savings would come from the shorter sentences for inmates convicted of drug or property crimes and who did not get into additional trouble while behind bars, said Patrick Armstrong, senior policy analyst for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which conducted the report. The shorter sentences would not be for anyone convicted of assault, robbery or other crime in which a victim was physically accosted or hurt, he said.
The savings would have no impact on the 2017-18 fiscal year budget that is being finished now for the fiscal year that begins Saturday. The savings would start the following year. Still, the state’s annual deficit shows no sign of waning as expenses continue to outstrip revenue. That’s why Gov. Tom Wolf earmarked the long-term savings into the Corrections Department’s budget for the 2018-19 to 2022-23 fiscal years.
“We support all the packages of reform,” said Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott.
The Senate also is looking at the Justice Reinvestment recommendations as part of the budget, said Drew Crompton, the Senate Republicans’ top lawyer.
The state’s Justice Reinvestment program was launched under Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, whom Wolf retained when he took office. The Corbett-era program, aimed at reducing inmate numbers with more intervention and less punishment, saved the state $51.3 million and reduced the prison population by 1,500 inmates, enough to close a prison this year.
But it remains to be seen whether the latest idea will be accepted by the Legislature.
The House this year passed a bill to increase prison time for some drug and violent crime offenders. The bill, now in the Senate, would drive up taxpayer costs by $85 million annually and increase the prison population by 2,200 inmates, reversing a six-year decline., the Corrections Department estimates.
Still, Wetzel doesn’t think the state can turn its back on a program that has shown its value since 2012.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us to take action that will directly improve the ability of our county probation departments to keep our communities safe while at the same time providing some relief to our strained general fund,” Wetzel said.
Under current law, judges have the option of sentencing convicts to county or state prison if their crime warrants a minimum jail stay of up to two years. According to the report, sentencing guidelines do not provide judges with enough guidance as to whether someone deserves county or prison time. Judges simply use their best judgment.
If an inmate lands in county prison, they tend to do the minimum sentence, the report found. An inmate who gets state prison tends to stay locked up five months longer than their mandatory minimum “even though the additional confinement time does not have a positive impact on recidivism,” the report states. That extra five months cost the state $73 million in 2015.
The state could save that money if the Legislature passes a bill that requires state prisons to use the same threshold as counties in releasing inmates when their mandatory minimums are up, the report found.
Additional savings could be had if the state Supreme Court created better risk assessment as part of pre-trial guidelines to help judges determine when a defendant is sent to prison or released on bail, the report found.
If all ideas are adopted, the report estimates 1,032 fewer inmates by 2022-23, saving the state $108 million.. The report recommends the Legislature give half the annual savings to the state, with the other half being used to bolster county probation services, help the courts write new sentencing guidelines and increase funds for victims.