After months of closed-door talks, Philadelphia Gov. Ed Rendell has rolled out a far-reaching legislative package to overhaul the state’s crowded prison system that would include releasing some criminals early, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The package includes a plan to get nonviolent offenders out of jail and into programs designed to make sure they don’t commit another offense. People serving time on drug charges and petty theft would be among those eligible. “These reforms will increase the safety of our citizens and slow the rise in correction costs,” said Donna Cooper, Rendell’s policy secretary. “Both of these goals are necessary and urgent.”
State and county jails contain nearly 80,000 inmates. Other aspects of the governor’s package aim to cut prison costs by streamlining prisoner transportation, paperwork, and parole administration. This year, the Department of Corrections received $1.6 billion in state funding, or 6 percent of the state’s $27.2 billion budget. The proposal also would transfer some inmates serving sentences between two and five years from county to state prisons. That change could add about 2,500 inmates to the approxmately 45,600 in state prisons. “We were really out of step with what’s happening in the rest of the country by leaving it up to the counties to deal with more serious long-term offenders,” said Sarah Hart, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who helped broker the deal. Philadelphia’s prisons are badly crowded. On Aug. 6, Philadelphia’s prison population hit 9,123, more than double the average of 4,000 in the late 1980s. Although the district attorneys have signed off on the plan, the early-release provision could face fierce opposition from lawmakers concerned that such a policy might appear soft on crime.