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

[UPDATED: March 26, 2019]

By The Council of State Governments Justice Center Staff

US Map with PA highlightedIn 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.