Faced with a serious overpopulation of Pennsylvania prisons and the need to ship inmates to other states, legislators may consider easing some harsh sentencing guidelines so that nonviolent offenders aren’t automatically sent to prison for lengthy terms, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. State Rep. Tom Caltagirone, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said judges should be given more latitude in deciding on sentences for minor offenses — leeway they don’t have now due to mandatory sentencing laws approved 10 or 20 years ago in the heyday of “lock ’em up, throw away the key” thinking.
One new tool to help reduce prison overcrowding, said state Corrections Department Deputy Secretary William Sprenkle, would be to allow any prisoner with eight months left on his or her sentence to serve the time at a pre-release center or halfway house. “Short-time offenders are clogging up our prison system,” he said. Some lawmakers fear that worsening overcrowding could lead to prison riots or federal lawsuits against the state. There are risks with expanding parole, both political and public safety-related. No legislator wants to be seen as “soft on crime” by voting to let more convicted criminals out on parole, even if they are still monitored via ankle bracelets and parole officers. No matter how careful officials are in classifying a parolee as “nonviolent,” it’s almost impossible to be right 100 percent of the time, Caltagirone admitted. The population of the state’s 27 prisons is more than 51,000 and growing, compared to capacity of 43,000.