Patriot News Op-ed: Lawmakers must put a stop to increased prison spending

February 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM

By Emily Abendroth

Gov. Tom Corbett has once again proposed a budget to keep Pennsylvania on the path of unchecked prison growth and underinvestment in education and social services.

His proposed 2013-2014 budget does little to restore the $1 billion cut from education and millions more cut from social services during his tenure. Yet under Corbett's plan, the Department of Corrections would receive about $68 million in increased operating funds and $166 million for capital projects.

This dramatic increase comes at a time when the Corbett administration is congratulating itself for its corrections “savings.” In July, Corbett signed the Criminal Justice Reform Act into law, which he claims will save the state $139 million. The Department of Corrections also recently announced that it plans to close two state prisons, SCI Cresson in Cambria County and SCI Greensburg in Westmoreland County, and transfer prisoners to a newly built $200 million facility that now sits empty in Benner Township. Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says the prison closures will save $23 million a year.

If Gov. Corbett and Secretary Wetzel are right that recent legislative reform and the state’s huge investment in new prison construction will save the state millions, we would expect the DOC’s budget to reflect those savings. Instead, we see a $68 million increase, to nearly $2 billion in annual operating expenses, and a DOC budget projected to hover close to $2 billion for the next five years.

With the state spending more than $400 million to build two new prisons on the grounds of SCI Graterford in Montgomery County, we cannot expect the DOC budget to decrease any time soon. Wile the DOC claims that the new prisons – SCI Phoenix I and II – will replace the old Graterford, they would still add 1,100 beds to the prison system even if the old facility is shuttered.

These numbers beg the question: if Corbett’s reforms are shrinking the prison population, why are we still spending millions on prison expansion, using funds desperately needed in our schools and communities?

The Department of Corrections has also refused to commit to permanently closing old Graterford if the new facilities are built. In fact, DOC spokesperson Susan McNaughton said that the facility would remain available for overcrowding. The DOC has done this before, closing SCI Pittsburgh in 2005 after SCI Fayette and SCI Forest were built, only to reopen it two years later. Governor Corbett’s budget contains further evidence that the DOC is not serious about closing Graterford. The proposed budget allocates $1.3 million in capital funds to build a new roof on parts of the existing facility. Why would the DOC spend more than $1 million to replace the roof on a prison they plan to shut down in two years?

It is time for lawmakers to reverse the trend of unchecked corrections spending and shortsighted expansion plans. They can start by demanding some real answers from the corrections secretary and the governor.

Secretary Wetzel has already come under fire from the Senate and House Judiciary Committees for the way he handled the prison closures in Cambria and Westmoreland Counties. Members of the House Judiciary in particular pressed Wetzel to explain why the state is closing existing prisons only to build expensive new ones, and asked whether construction on SCI Phoenix I and II can still be stopped. Wetzel sidestepped the question, but the reality is that construction is still in the early stages. It is not too late for legislators to demand a thorough investigation into whether the new facilities are necessary. There is little lawmakers can do about SCI Benner Township at this point. With SCI Phoenix I & II, they have the opportunity to save money and do the right thing.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should reject Gov. Corbett’s expanded prison budget and instead enact policies that substantially reduce the prison population. There are many ways to do this safely and effectively. In 2005, a bipartisan commission initiated by the legislature recommended parole eligibility for people who had served over 25 years in prison and were over 50 years of age. 

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing has recommended repealing some of Pennsylvania’s harsh mandatory minimum laws. And advocates across the nation have been calling for a treatment-based approach to drug and alcohol addiction instead of incarceration. These initiatives would create a dramatic reduction in prison spending and reunite many incarcerated men and women with their families. The money saved from these reforms could be invested in education, health care, job training—the things we need to create healthier, safer, more sustainable communities.

Pennsylvania faces a tough economic climate after two years of systemic divestment in our public infrastructure. No one wants more prisons and more corrections spending—especially not at the expense of our schools, our health, and our environment. Lawmakers in Harrisburg have the opportunity to stand up to the governor’s broken priorities and demand answers and real change from the Corbett administration. The future of our state depends on it.

Emily Abendroth is a member of Decarcerate Pa, a prison reform group