As New York State closes some prisons, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says a spending increase is necessary in his state, in large part because of rising prison costs. His warning came at a time when several states, led by New York, are beginning to move away from mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug and property crimes and toward alternative sentencing and expanded drug and mental-health treatment along with early release for good behavior.
In Pennsylvania since 1990, inmates in the state’s 26 prisons have doubled from 22,000 to more than 44,000. In the same period, costs spiraled from $407 million in 1990 to $1.4 billion in 2006-07. Facing an 11,000-bed shortfall by 2011, the Department of Corrections said it would have to build more prisons. “There are 10 to 15 years’ worth of studies showing just locking up drug offenders or those who commit property crimes doesn’t work,” said corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard said. “Confinement alone, without addressing problems, is not an effective way of dealing with people.” A package of four bills modeled in part on the New York laws and supported by Rendell cleared the state House this month and heads to the Senate, where it has leadership support. New York’s approaches, studies show, help reduce the chance of an offender’s committing another crime. “They may get out sooner than they used to, but it’s not ‘get out of jail free,’ ” said Brian Fischer, New York corrections commissioner. “They are released earlier but under strict supervision.”