Criminal Justice Reform Focus of Pennsylvania Initiative

By the CSG Justice Center

Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and chair of the Justice Reinvestment working group, speaks at the start of the first working group meeting at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg.

Josh Shapiro (center), chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and chair of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, speaks at the start of the first working group meeting at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg.

A new bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Working Group composed of members from all three branches of Pennsylvania’s government met for the first time on March 9 at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg for a presentation by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center on pressing criminal justice issues in the state.

The group, composed of 34 members from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and chaired by Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, will meet throughout the year to find ways to reduce ineffective corrections spending and invest those savings in proven public safety strategies.

“Today’s first working group meeting illustrates the depth and breadth of the problems facing our criminal justice system and the incredible opportunity we have to save money, improve public safety, and promote fairness with this phase of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Pennsylvania,” Gov. Tom Wolf said.

Findings from the presentation show that Pennsylvania has the highest incarceration rate among all states in the Northeast, despite declines in its prison population in recent years.

Other findings include:

  • Between 2004 and 2014, corrections expenditures increased by 40 percent, from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion.
  • Over the same period, the state’s incarceration rate increased by 20 percent. Conversely, New York and New Jersey saw their incarceration rates drop by 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
  • Pennsylvania has the highest parole supervision rate in the country.
  • Almost 250,000 people in the state are supervised by 65 county probation departments on any given day.

The working group will continue to guide the CSG Justice Center’s analysis of state criminal justice system data to develop legislative policy options that will be introduced into the General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session.

“It is vital that we continue to work toward increasing efficiencies and reducing the costs of our corrections system. We need to reduce recidivism to benefit our communities and help ensure that taxpayer dollars that are being sent to Harrisburg are being used productively,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said.

The CSG Justice Center has helped more than 20 other states—including West Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio—apply a justice reinvestment approach designed to lower unnecessary costs and inject those savings into strategies that can reduce recidivism and enhance public safety. The initiative is made possible through funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The justice reinvestment approach has already had positive effects in Pennsylvania. After the state’s prison population increased by 28 percent (from 40,090 to 51,184 people) between 2002 and 2012, a Justice Reinvestment Initiative was conducted from 2011 to 2012. Legislation was passed in mid-2012, and the prison population declined to 49,914 people by the end of 2015. These changes generated almost $13 million in savings, close to $4 million of which was reinvested in areas to enhance public safety, such as victims’ services, effective policing procedures, strengthened probation, and local reentry strategies.

Despite the impacts from the 2012 reforms, other drivers of the incarceration rate and increasing costs at the state and local levels remain unaddressed. Therefore, the latest justice reinvestment effort will focus on the front end of the system, including sentencing and pretrial policies.

The next working group meeting will take place on May 18th at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency headquarters in Harrisburg.