Pubdate: Tue, 02 Aug 2011 Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc Contact: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/340 Author: Patrick Kerkstra PA. LOOSENING PENALTIES, NOT PURSE STRINGS You know money is tight when politicians - Republicans, no less - start talking about how expensive it is to lock people up. In more normal times, few things get elected officials more excited than rigging the justice system with mandatory minimum sentences and other legislative maneuvers designed to stiffen the spines of squishy judges. The idea, of course, is to ensure that offenders, violent or otherwise, do the hardest time possible. Voters are a skittish bunch. In large cities and small towns alike, they tend to think crime is getting worse though criminal violence has declined steadily since the early 1990s. So politically, it has made sense to "get tough," indefinitely. Fiscally though, the lock-everybody-up mania has been a disaster. As reported by The Inquirer's Joelle Farrell, Pennsylvania's corrections budget now stands at $1.86 billion. That's nearly half of Philadelphia's entire annual operating budget. And it's no wonder. The commonwealth's prisons are now home to 51,000 inmates, up 41 percent since 1999. The good news is that, if the political will is there, it's not all that hard to get a handle on prison costs. It doesn't require a huge drop in crime. It doesn't require a willingness to let violent felons off easy. What it requires is a modicum of judgment, a realization that it's not necessarily in the public's best interest to go for the maximum punishment in every single instance. Since taking office in 2010, Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams has shown the impact that a more nuanced prosecutorial approach can have on the city's jail population and costs. Instead of locking up residents for small-time marijuana possession, the city is letting more get off with a fine and a one-day class on the legal repercussions of drug arrests. Other nonviolent offenders - typically for charges like retail theft and prostitution - are being released after 12 to 24 hours of community service and a $200 fine. And prosecutors are no longer automatically slapping defendants with trumped-up charges they can't hope to prove (a practice popular under then-District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham), which makes it more likely that defendants will await trial out on bail instead of whiling weeks away in jail on the taxpayers' dime. These and other reforms, documented in a Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative study released last week, helped the city reduce its jail population 11 percent last year, shaving $10 million from its prisons budget. It's not just Philadelphia. A Pew review of state prison populations across the country last year logged the first national decline in 38 years. New Jersey was among those states shedding prisoners; Pennsylvania not so much. In fact, no state added more prisoners last year than Pennsylvania, which might help explain why Gov. Corbett proposed increasing his corrections budget 11 percent. But state lawmakers thought it was bad policy to pump up prison funding while slashing education. So the Republican-dominated statehouse dialed the corrections budget back to last year's. That seems fine with John E. Wetzel, Corbett's secretary of corrections. "When we over-incarcerate individuals - and there is a portion of our population that we over-incarcerate - we're not improving public safety," he told The Inquirer. "Quite the opposite." State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), a former district attorney, is pushing a bill designed to divert nonviolent offenders from prison. This is the same guy who, in 2000, tried to knock off former U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel by painting him as a soft-on-crime lefty. But just as Pennsylvania Republicans are showing signs of a Nixon-to-China moment over staggering corrections costs, President Obama is trying harder than ever to inoculate himself from the charge that he's a classic liberal who'd rather coddle criminals than incarcerate them. (Never mind that nobody is really making that charge.) Obama's 2012 budget proposed $527 million in additional funds for the Bureau of Prisons (half of which was earmarked for moving the Gitmo detainees to a new Illinois prison). And while there's a growing national movement to decriminalize marijuana, the Obama Justice Department is backtracking on a prior policy to look the other way on medical marijuana. Because hey, the law is the law, and those who break it - no matter how misguided the law may be - need to be put away. After all, it's not like we have anything better to spend the money on. Right? - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.