At first glance, you can’t blame Mayor Michael Nutter for wanting to build a new prison. The House of Correction — which has an awesome name — is super old and doesn’t even have air conditioning. Both the inmates and the staffers deserve better conditions than the facility can provide.
Still: Nutter should hold off. Let the next mayor deal with it, if necessary, but not this year.
We still need to ensure our schools are properly funded. Remember a couple of years back, when Gov. Tom Corbett was in office and the SRC ended up closing dozens of schools to plug a huge budget deficit? A lot of people held it against Corbett that the state was funding a $400 million prison construction project in Montgomery County at the same time Philly schools were flailing.
Philly schools seem to have stabilized a bit, financially, since then — but full funding is not assured, even with the backing of new Gov. Tom Wolf. Funding for prisons never seems to be in doubt, but funding for schools is a perpetual battle. If only to protect and enhance his own legacy, Mayor Nutter could do a profound service by letting Harrisburg know that he won’t put any more money into prisons until Philly schools have a sufficient, ongoing source of revenue.
We need to work on decriminalizing our population. Statewide since 1980, the prison population has increased sixfold — to more than 51,000 inmates. The bill for that? $2 billion a year. Pennsylvania joined the crowd during the 1980s by locking up just about everybody and throwing away the key. The result? Our nation has 5 percent of the world population and 25 percent of the prison population. (The numbers come from Decarcerate PA.) Mass incarceration has gotten dangerously out of hand.
Philadelphia has already taken the first step to reducing those numbers by decriminalizing marijuana. Now it’s time to look for other ways to reduce the city’s prison population without endangering the law-abiding citizens here. Maybe work to end or reduce mandatory minimum sentences? Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney is talking about relieving pressure on the prison system here through reform of the bail and pretrial processes. There’s probably no shortage of ideas about reducing the number of non-violent offenses that result in time behind bars. Before another prison is built, or rebuilt, maybe a better enterprise would be to examine laws, top to bottom, and figure out how to preserve public safety without locking everybody up.
It’s going to be awful rough getting Council to pass a 9 percent property tax hike. The members of council face re-election, but Mayor Nutter doesn’t. Some goodies in his budget this go-round will have to wait. Let the rebuilt House of Correction be one of those things.
Anybody can build a prison. Making prisons less necessary? That would be revolutionary. We’re always going to need a place to keep the people who mean to do us harm. But this year, at least, let’s make a higher priority of our hopes than we do of our fears.
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