EXPRESS-TIMES: Pennsylvania's addiction to prison-building a moral, economic disaster

By Robert Walden and Thomas Dichter
October 11, 2014

In their last two debates, neither Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett nor Tom Wolf has spoken a word about mass incarceration. Yet the Department of Corrections is the third largest item in the state budget, costing more than $2 billion in 2014-15.

Pennsylvania has opened 20 new state prisons in the past 35 years. Next year the DOC is slated to open two more at a cost of $400 million, although opposition to continued prison growth is building across the national political spectrum. The two new prisons, both in Montgomery County, are to be named "Phoenix I and II." But given the economic, public safety, and moral disaster that mass incarceration has proven to be for Pennsylvania, the only thing rising from the ashes is the DOC budget.

Pennsylvania is not the only state that has watched its prison population skyrocket. Nationwide, decades of rapid growth in incarceration have landed the United States the dubious distinction of imprisoning more of its citizens than any other country in the world. But some particularly bad policies here in Pennsylvania have made our prison crisis especially stark.

In the 1980s, state legislators made the sentence of life-without-parole mandatory for select crimes. Today, consequently, more than 5,000 people have been sentenced to die behind bars in Pennsylvania. Life-long sentences abandon the basic principle of rehabilitation — the idea that human beings are capable of changing and thus deserve second chances. Indeed, under the same mandatory life-without-parole legislation, Pennsylvania courts have sentenced roughly 500 children to die in prison, surpassing every other state in the country. Such extreme sentencing policies have ratcheted up the prison population, and every year the bill keeps on increasing for taxpayers.

With other states finally making some progress, prison reform in Pennsylvania has stagnated. Whereas both Michigan and Texas have been able to close prisons in recent years, Corbett has overseen the building of three new prisons and nine prison expansions — all at a time when crime rates are actually falling in Pennsylvania and nationwide. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts study found that the states with the biggest decreases in prison population have seen an average crime rate drop of 12 percent. While the Corbett administration proudly points to their Justice Reinvestment initiative, they have hardly acknowledged how massive our state prison population remains. The total number of people the DOC now incarcerates is greater than the population of our capital city. The past few decades have proven that Pennsylvania's excessive sentencing laws will continue to fill new prisons just as fast as we can build them. That's why we need a moratorium on prison construction.

A moratorium is a meaningful step toward reducing our prison population. We need to break the cycle of overcrowding, building anew, and overcrowding again. Prisons are hurting our communities. The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on people of color is so dramatic that many now call it the "new Jim Crow."

The financial cost of our prison system is grossly unsustainable, especially at a time when budget cuts are forcing school closures. Ending our prison crisis is an economic and moral imperative. With the gubernatorial election upon us, Corbett has made it clear where he stands on prison reform. But Wolf should let Pennsylvanians know if he will actually offer a new way forward on this issue.

Pennsylvania deserves an alternative to the failed prison expansion policies of the Corbett administration and its predecessors, but Wolf has said very little to differentiate himself from his rival when it comes to mass incarceration. Does Wolf support a moratorium on new prison construction?

Robert Walden, of Bethlehem and Thomas Dichter, of Philadelphia are volunteer members of DecarceratePA, grassroots campaign working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania.