Pennsylvania Takes More Steps to Reduce Prison Population

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania enacted a new law in February 2020 designed to limit the stays of lower-risk offenders in prison in its latest effort to reduce the state’s prison population and to stop first-time offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed the two-bill package shortly after the Republican-controlled Senate approved the bills. The GOP-controlled House did the same Tuesday.  Key provisions involve getting shorter-sentence offenders onto parole faster and helping get more lower-risk offenders into programs that are shown to lower recidivism.

In some ways, the legislation was a continuing effort by the state to undo the effect of laws passed in the 1990s that substantially toughened criminal sentences and precipitated a ballooning state prison population. Pennsylvania’s incarceration rate is in the middle of the pack, according to federal data from 2016.

Several elements of the legislation, however, revisit a 2012 law that overhauled the parole system in an effort to shrink the state’s prison population.

Those changes were prompted by a spate of five parolees being arrested over the summer in homicides, most with connections to domestic violence. Victims included two children and Pittsburgh police Officer Calvin Hall.

The bill had broad support from law enforcement groups and criminal justice reform advocates. It’s goal of reducing the state prison population is expected to yield nearly $50 million in savings over five years, money that the state will earmark for use by county-based probation offices.

One key provision allows the automatic parole of certain non-violent offenders after they have served a minimum sentence of two years or less, a change designed to make parole more swift, consistent and efficient.

“I think that’s going to be really significant in reducing our (prison) population,” Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said. “That presumptive parole is the No. 1 component of the population reduction.”

To help expand the use of the prison system’s intensive inpatient drug treatment program, the legislation streamlines the process through which inmates enter and makes more inmates automatically eligible.

The law also similarly is designed to smooth the path for offenders to enter the prison system’s “boot camp,” a discipline-focused facility that targets behavior modification for young adult offenders who have a higher propensity for violence and misconduct in prison. Research has shown that both the drug treatment program and the boot camp reduce the likelihood of recidivism, state officials say.

It also creates a state advisory committee for county-run probation systems in an effort to improve and standardize how they operate.

Several provisions emerged from the Department of Corrections’ review of cases where parolees were arrested for homicide.

One provision updates a 2012 law to add a trigger for an automatic six-month to one-year jail sentence for a parolee who continually ignores parole conditions, such as going to treatment or counseling.

The 2012 law already has five such triggers, including threatening behavior or possession of a weapon. The sixth provision is designed to address complaints by parole agents that changes over the past decade have stripped them of discretion to pull a potentially dangerous parolee off the street.

The bill also authorizes an annual review of homicides by parolees and provides an intermediate avenue to punish a parole violator, a short-term detention option of up to a week for parole violations that aren’t considered serious enough to warrant a return to prison.