Pubdate: Tue, 02 Aug 2011
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc


The remarkable success in shrinking Philadelphia's jail population
over the last two years has not produced a corresponding spike in
violent crime. That should offer hope, at least, to Pennsylvania
officials who are exploring ways to reduce crowding in a state prison
system costing taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year.

Judged by a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the city's
key stakeholders in law enforcement have figured out more ways to
"lock up the right people," as noted by Mayor Nutter's top aide on
public safety.

The city prison census was whittled down to 7,700 inmates by last
spring, from a high of nearly 10,000 in early 2009. Pew credits a
"confluence of different policies, most of which required a lot of
collaboration" by court officials, prosecutors, public defenders, and
prison officials.

Not surprisingly, the report singled out District Attorney Seth
Williams' policies that, effectively, decriminalized possession of
small amounts of marijuana. Williams also directed his prosecutors to
get away from the past practice of piling on criminal charges, later
dropped as part of the plea-bargaining process.

A court-approved program offers community service for nonviolent
misdemeanor offenses. By streamlining court procedures, defendants
facing probation and parole violations spent fewer days in custody,
Pew found.

For all that, the city's efforts also stand as a case study in how
difficult it is to trim costs by emptying prison bunks.

The city's $231 million prison budget dropped by just $10 million,
mostly because the same number of prison staff was needed to run the
prisons. Only by closing a prison - as should be done with the
1927-era House of Corrections on State Road - will costs be trimmed
more significantly, Pew found.

At the state level, with 26 prisons operating, there are no plans to
shutter any prisons. Indeed, three more are planned. However, Gov.
Corbett upon taking office quickly halted a fourth prison.

With more than 51,000 inmates in cells, the state prison population
has climbed steadily over the last decade-plus. So, it's encouraging
that Corbett has named a prison chief, John E. Wetzel, who concedes
that the state has "over-incarcerated."

Wetzel's support for diverting more nonviolent offenders to
rehabilitation programs or alternative sentences could be the key to
reducing state prison crowding and costs.

At the state level, though, it will be necessary to change mandatory
sentencing laws that handcuff judges. The state Senate's judiciary
committee chairman, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), is
working on a package of proposals that look promising.

Those efforts likely will conflict with typical calls for
law-and-order crackdowns. Only the other week, for instance, Greenleaf
appropriately decried a colleague's push to enact mandatory sentencing
in certain arson cases.

The budget squeeze may be what has the most power to help keep prisons
from overflowing again. Officials need to be reminded that, absent
carefully planned steps to cut prison costs, they could be forced by
future budget crises to approve wholesale releases of inmates who
should be behind bars. 
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