A steady rise in inmates and the political risks of paroling prisoners are complicating Pennsylvania’s efforts to ease crowded prison conditions, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The state’s 27 lockups hold nearly 47,000 inmates, up from just over 36,000 in 1998. The number of inmates is now 8 percent over the capacity of 43,300. State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard estimates that the prison population could top 57,000 by the end of 2012. Legislators’ desire to be “tough on crime” and the public’s fear of drug-related crimes have led to longer and more mandatory sentences. Correctional costs, $1.6 billion for 2008-09, are the third biggest item in the $28 billion state budget, after education and welfare. The state wants three new 2,000-inmate prisons, each costing $200 million.
The legislature has enacted a law to make more nonviolent prisoners eligible for early release. They would complete programs to ease their transition back into society, such as anger management and overcoming drug use, before being paroled. Giving parole to someone who commits another crime can spell political disaster. In September, a recently-released inmate killed a Philadelphia police officer. Gov. Ed Rendell, under pressure from police unions and citizens groups, imposed a moratorium on paroles. The moratorium was lifted last week for nonviolent prisoners, whom Rendell calls those “with no history of a violent offense.” Deciding if an inmate is truly nonviolent can be tricky, said a Rendell spokesman.