Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Corbett admin moves in right direction on prisons

Lately, we've been doing a lot of complaining around here. When our state government is trying to undermine our rights in various and increasingly heinous ways, we can't help but complain. I actually heard at the state capitol a few weeks ago members of the House are complaining about the criticism they're taking. (Memo to the state House: There's a simple way to avoid criticism. Don't pass dumb bills. Or resolutions.)

That said, we are willing to give credit and heap praise where it is due. It is due to Governor Corbett and his administration, particularly Secretary John Wetzel, the head of the Department of Corrections (DOC), for what appears to be a genuine dedication to addressing overincarceration in the commonwealth.

Quick recap: Pennsylvania's state prisons are woefully overcrowded, to the point that two years ago several thousand inmates were exported to Virginia and Michigan. Other states are reducing inmate population and closing prisons. We're building several new ones, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

This week, Secretary Wetzel took center stage before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Wetzel reiterated the administration's support for Senate Bill 100, a bill to expand access to numerous alternative sentencing programs and attempts to make re-entry programs more effective. Wetzel told the committee that the DOC projects that the inmate population will start shrinking, starting next year, but that passage of SB 100 is "essential."

SB 100 has passed the Senate and is currently in the House Judiciary Committee. Over the last two sessions, the House has been the hurdle to more reform, and it's been backed up by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and, especially, the Office of the Attorney General, including when it was occupied by Tom Corbett. The challenges in the state House have been bipartisan, as both Republicans and Democrats grasp desperately to the old, ineffective ways of addressing criminal justice.

Wetzel also told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, which is sometimes called "good time" or "earned time," needs revised to remove the power of the district attorney and the defendant to veto the defendant's participation. Wetzel said that only five percent of eligible defendants actually participate in RRRI, a program that allows certain inmates to serve less than the minimum sentence if he or she completes designated rehabilitation and educational programs.

Wetzel's appearance before the committee came just a week after the DOC announced that the privatization of state prisons is off the table. The ACLU of Pennsylvania opposes private prisons due to the lack of public oversight and transparency in those institutions.

Finally, last month the Corbett administration announced the formation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a committee of stakeholders that will analyze the commonwealth's prison costs and ways to reduce them. As we've seen in other states, the solutions are out there. If this committee gives the governor political cover to implement real reform, that's a good thing.

Here at civil liberties headquarters, we call them the way we see them. If the government screws up, we have no qualms with saying it. On ending Pennsylvania's addiction to overincarceration, Governor Corbett is leading. We applaud him for it.


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