Pennsylvania spends half billion more on prisons than previously reported

By Dan Denvir, City Paper

Pennsylvania spends at least $463.8 million more on prisons than is reflected in the state's already massive $1.6 billion prison budget, according to a new Vera Institute of Justice and Pew Center on the States report.

The study used a calculation that included various costs tabulated elsewhere in the budget including fringe benefits to employees, underfunded pension and retiree health care plans, spending on inmate health care and education, legal costs and capital projects.

Pennsylvania, according to the study, had one of the largest discrepancies of the 40 states surveyed: 22.6 percent of prison costs are outside the corrections budget, which makes the total spent $2.1 billion. Nationwide, states pay 14 percent more for prisons than is reflected in state budgets—$38.8 billion, or $5.4 billion than officially budgeted.

"This new tool changes the equation. It paints a far more accurate picture of the costs to taxpayers," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States. "State leaders already have been questioning whether corrections spending passes the cost-benefit test, especially for nonviolent offenders."

The announced increase in prison spending comes amid widespread cuts to social service programs, including an across-the-board mid-year budget cut, an asset test for food stamps, and the removal of 88,000 children from Medicaid. Last year's state budget slashed nearly $1 billion in public education funding.

The report suggests that states reform sentencing and release policies, and improve reentry programs for ex-offenders to reduce recidivism—moves that Pennsylvania prison reform activists would welcome. Though Republican Gov. Tom Corbett yesterday announced the creation of a working group to cut prison spending (that would include the Pew Center on the States), activists aren't optimistic.

"These figures just go to show that Governor Corbett cares neither about the people of Pennsylvania nor their pocketbooks,”says Dan Berger, an activist with Decarcerate PA and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “They provide more proof of the need for Pennsylvania to rethink its criminal justice policies, starting with an end to new prison construction."

Activists are protesting the $400 million spent on the construction of two new prisons at the SCI-Graterford site in Montgomery County. Though capital projects, like other cost factors incorporated into the new study, are counted separately from the budget, the study authors were unable to obtain capital costs from Pennsylvania. The study's estimate is thus a conservative one, and the actual total prison budget in Pennsylvania is likely far greater.

Decarcerate PA supports a proposal from Republican State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (SB 100), a one-time lead supporter of harsh sentencing. His plan would boost support for programs to help ex-offenders reenter the community and would offer non-prison alternatives for non-violent offenders.

The older civil rights-based movement for prison reform, which decries the mass incarceration of men of color, has gained surprising new allies on the right in recent years thanks to increasing concern over government spending.

Pennsylvania, however, has proven resistant to reform.

Though in 2009 the number of state prisoners nation-wide declined for the first time in 38 years, the prison population in Pennsylvania grew by 2,122 people (4.3 percent) — more than in any other state. The prison population continued to grow in 2010, reaching 51,312.

"The fact that our budget is $1.86 billion has a lot of people rethinking some of the assumptions we’ve made in the past," Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel told the Inquirer last July. "When we over-incarcerate individuals—and there is a portion of our population that we over-incarcerate–we’re not improving public safety. Quite the opposite."

Philadelphia has made some progress. District Attorney Seth Williams stopped imprisoning most people arrested for pot possession. And according to another Pew study, Philadelphia’s prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2008—and then decreased by 11 percent in 2010.

Posted by Daniel Denvir @ 10:22 AM  Permalink | File Under: News | | Prisons | Post a comment