Pennsylvania’s corrections secretary has outlined steps that could be taken at little or no cost to free up as many as 2,000 prison beds statewide and save the state $200 million, the cost of a new prison, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Current law prevents the state from sending newly jailed inmates — even those with less than a year to serve — to community correctional facilities or halfway houses, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because all new inmates must go to state prison for the first nine months of their sentence, the 3,500 inmates with short sentences who enter the prison system each year are a major driver of the state’s prison-overcrowding problem.
“In many ways, it makes little sense to tie up our valuable and costly prison beds for what, in large part, are less-serious offenders,” Beard said. Halfway houses can be used for inmates convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes; they sleep there but can leave during the day for jobs or schooling. The state’s 27 prisons house 51,000 inmates, up from 45,000 just five years ago. The overcrowding situation is forcing the state to send 2,000 inmates this month to prisons in Michigan and Virginia, and also forcing the state build three new prisons. The ever-growing inmate population is causing the annual corrections budget to approach $2 billion, the third highest amount in the state budget after education and public welfare.