Patriot News Op Ed: Gov. Corbett's prison reform effort doesn't look much like 'justice' or 'reinvestment' at all

July 22, 2014 
By Ben Felker-Quinn and Ashley Henderson

As Gov. Tom Corbett made a spectacle last week of his own priorities for next year's budget, he seemed increasingly desperate to make good on unfulfilled promises.

The same could be said of his efforts at prison reform. For the fourth year in a row, Corbett pushed through a budget that significantly increases funding for Pennsylvania's prison system, sending an additional $78 million to the Department of Corrections.

For the first time in history, the Corrections Department will receive over $2 billion in state funds. While at the same time, Pennsylvania schools face what has become an annual funding crisis, and social services, healthcare, and affordable housing remain severely underfunded across the state. 

Ironically, the Governor's much-touted "Justice Reinvestment" prison reform package of 2012 was intended to reduce the prison population by getting "smart on crime."

According to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, using a "data-driven approach" to shape more efficient policies, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) aimed to decrease Pennsylvania's prison population by almost 3000 people, saving the state $260.5 million by 2017. 

A few months ago, a publicity blitz announced that Pennsylvania's prison population had "leveled off" in 2013, and a recent appearance by Corbett and Wetzel in Washington celebrated the modest "success" of justice reinvesment in Pennsylvania.

We can no longer afford to be taken in by misleading numbers and broken promises.

However, neither the department nor the Corbett administration has acknowledged that two years after the JRI passed, our prison population has not actually decreased as promised, and, with the additional $78 million in next year's budget, money has not been saved.

Even the department's claim to 'leveling-off,' which would suggest progress toward those goals, does not explain why the agency's "total residential population" instead increased by 3,000 persons since 2012, according to their own documents. Almost halfway to 2017, Pennsylvania is still very far from accomplishing JRI's projected goals.

We believe that JRI was destined to fall short because it failed to address the central driver of Pennsylvania's forty years of prison growth—harsh sentencing laws that have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color across the state.

Pennsylvania now has more people serving parole-ineligible sentences than any other state except Florida and more serving juvenile life without parole than any other state in the world. Because of policies like these, there are more than 8,000 elderly men and women incarcerated in Pennsylvania's prisons.

And while several other states – and the general public – have recognized that drug addiction and abuse can be treated much more effectively as a public health issue than a criminal one, Gov. Corbett has never addressed Pennsylvania's regressive drug laws.

Not once has he spoken about re-examining mandatory minimum sentences, or extending compassionate release to elderly prisoners.

Though the Corbett administration claims a "data-driven" approach to criminal justice reform, it has ignored the wealth of research on how other states have decreased their prison populations over the last decade.

Four states--New Jersey, New York, Michigan, and Kansas--have reduced their prison populations between 5 and 20 percent since 1999.

They have done so through targeted changes in policy and practice, with no adverse impact on public safety. New York legislators scaled back the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws in order to reduce incarceration of low-level drug defendants.

Meanwhile, Michigan lawmakers have reformed the "650 Lifer Law," which imposed mandatory life sentences for offenses involving at least 650 grams of cocaine or heroin.

Pennsylvania needs a governor who will take the lead on meaningful sentencing reform that can actually decrease the state's prison population.

Of course, real change will require action from the General Assembly as well, and that support has not been forthcoming.

When the original Justice Reinvestment package passed, legislators added language in the bill that eliminated the pre-release program, which meant that thousands of people would spend more, not less, time in prison. 

But the passage of another state budget increasing correctional spending demands that Pennsylvania's next governor prioritize a dramatic decrease in the number of men, women, and children in our prison system.

Democratic challenger Tom Wolf opposes mandatory minimum sentences, but has remained largely silent on broader prison reform.

So far, neither candidate for governor has put forward a plan for comprehensive sentencing reform.

As more and more people connect prison expansion to our underfunded schools, social services and healthcare, both candidates risk alienating voters if they refuse to put forward serious suggestions for prison reform.

The "Justice Reinvestment" package heralded by Corbett does not look like "justice" or "reinvestment." The prison population has not decreased and funds have not been reinvested in anything that actually addresses root causes of poverty and violence.

We can no longer afford to be taken in by misleading numbers and broken promises. Pennsylvania needs leadership that will take serious steps to divest from mass incarceration and invest resources in our communities. 

Ben Felker-Quinn and Ashley Henderson are members of the advocacy group Decarcerate PA.