Pennsylvania’s state prison population grew by about 45 percent over the last decade as the state embraced mandatory sentencing and dramatically increased the number of violent criminals forced to serve their maximum sentence, reports the Associated Press. The lock-’em-up approach to corrections – part of a national trend – has been accompanied by an ever-higher price tag and growing doubts about its effectiveness. Last month, Pennsylvania joined a growing number of states taking a step back from the policies of the 1990s. The Republican-controlled legislature sent to the governor a bill that would get nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders out of prison more quickly and into treatment programs. The policy change is expected to save the state more than $20 million a year and reduce pressure on a prison system now housing nearly 41,000 convicts, up from 28,302 in 1994. Corrections officials say treatment has been shown to reduce the chance that the inmates will end up back in prison. The typical inmate now spends about four years behind bars before being released. By one study, Pennsylvania keeps its inmates the longest of any state, more than twice the national average.
Nationally, more than half the states have loosened sentencing policies in the last three years, said Daniel F. Wilhelm of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. In Pennsylvania, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said, “I think that there are people that we’re confining that we either don’t need to confine for as long a period of time or we don’t need to confine at all. There are Part 2 offenders we have in our system that don’t need to stay as long as they’re staying.” William DiMascio of the Pennsylvania Prison Society recalled a young mother with no prior record who was arrested with two marijuana joints within a block or two of a school. “So all of a sudden she had this horrendous mandatory imprisonment,” the judge had to give her, he said. “It happens almost every day. We have these ridiculous situations that serve no one’s best interests.”