Four years ago, Pennsylvania’s state prison population was expected to top more than 56,000 inmates by the end of 2014. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett announced Monday, the agency ended the calendar year with 50,756 inmates – the lowest inmate population since June 2009.
“The utilization of Justice Reinvestment initiatives are producing measureable results,” Gov. Corbett said. “These numbers prove that our reforms are working.’’
Gov. Corbett began leading this reform by ordering the corrections system to analyze and improve.
“The decrease in prison population is a joint accomplishment and the result of internal efficiencies and collaboration between the Department of Corrections, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, county judicial systems and many others in the criminal justice continuum,” Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel and Gov.-Elect Tom Wolf’s choice to remain as Secretary said.
Last year alone, the number of people held inside a state prison was down 908 inmates from the previous year, Wetzel said. This number does not include those inmates held in secured halfway houses or other contracted county facilities.
One of the important factors in decreasing the population numbers, Wetzel said, is reducing the backlog in the parole process. This enables more offenders to meet the parole board, have their cases reviewed and, when appropriate, subsequently released in a timely manner. Approximately 75 percent of releases are the result of a paroling action.
In addition, the length of incarceration time has been reduced for parole violators. Should a parole violator be returned to state custody, the length of incarceration has been reduced from an average 12-to-14 months to a maximum cap of six months for a first violation.
Also in 2014, the Department of Corrections experienced the lowest number of court commitments in seven years. Specifically, there were a total of 10,321 commitments in 2014, compared to 11,520 commitments in 2013.
“Fewer court commitments combined with policy changes that enable Pennsylvania to both reduce spending and increase public safety are beginning to take shape,’’ Wetzel added. “All of this, it should be noted, is occurring while the crime rate continues to go down.’’
To reduce recidivism, the Department of Corrections looked at ways to help ex-offenders succeed after they were released from prison and returning to their communities.
The Department of Corrections initiated performance-based incentive programs for halfway houses contracted by the state, offering rewards for the private operators who hold down recidivism and revoking the contracts of those who don’t. Halfway houses were also required to provide mental health services.
To give offenders more tools to succeed after release, the Department of Corrections also:
— Made available guides and maps to community resources, easily accessible on computers and mobile apps.
— Developed a housing voucher program to provide security deposits and rental aid for low-risk inmates whose lack of a place to go left them in halfway houses despite release recommendations.
— The Department of Corrections also partnered with the Department of Transportation to ensure inmates leaving the state prison system had state identification cards required to access many services. Last year, more than 9,000 inmates had IDs when they left prison.
In addition, the Department of Corrections partnered with the Department of Labor and Industry to aid the prison system’s vocational offerings and to better prepare ex-offenders for the workforce upon release. It established structured mentoring through new contracts with nonprofits and faith-based community organizations.
“In 2014, the inmate population within the state correctional institutions decreased by 908,’’ said Dr. Bret Bucklen, the Department of Corrections’ director of Planning, Research and Statistics. “This also was the largest one-year drop in our population since 1971, and only the fourth time in the past 40 years that our population has shown an annual decrease rather than an increase.’’
An analysis of the prison population done in September 2010, projected the state’s inmate population at approximately 56,082 by December 2014, Bucklen said.
“At the same time Gov. Corbett initiated the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, he urged all of us in the criminal justice system to reach their goals in only a matter of months, where in other states, similar efforts take years,’’ Wetzel said. “By taking a bi-partisan, participatory planning approach, this process should allow us to build on the progress we’ve made during this administration.“We are continuing in the right direction thanks to everyone’s efforts,’’ Wetzel said. “I especially want to acknowledge the leadership of Executive Deputy Secretary Shirley Moore Smeal, who has headed up the internal improvement efforts for the Department of Corrections.”