Politicians tend to be a cowardly lot. They avoid doing anything difficult even if what needs doing makes perfect sense. They were told that mandatory sentences and get-tough-on-crime policies would exacerbate prison overcrowding. They doubled down on the same policies, even as the Department of Corrections budgets increased every year. Now, tough economic times are presenting a stark choice – stick with the same criminal justice policies at a cost to education and other government services or do something different.
Governor Corbett has chosen to double down by the planned construction of 8,100 new prison cells throughout the Commonwealth. The 4,000 bed institutions sited near the existing SCI Graterford alone, are estimated to cost $400 million to construct, with an annual operating cost of $80-100 million. Meanwhile, every so often, the legislature commissions blue ribbon panels (costing more money) to recommend solutions to address the problem of prison population growth, and then promptly discard or ignores the findings and recommendations. For example, Senate Resolutions 149 and others have consistently recommended that the legislature or the Governor effectively address the lifer population in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Former governors Shaffer and Shapp effectively used clemency, in part: to maintain a stable prison population, to correct excessive sentences, and to bestow mercy upon fellow human beings. But, politicians do not get elected on these kinds of principles and they don’t sound “tough” enough, particularly to the Commonwealth’s rural citizens.
We must demand that the legislature, the Governor, and the agencies responsible for criminal justice policies do a better job of rehabilitating prisoners, identifying those who can be released safely, and releasing them. There are thousands of rehabilitated men and women in the Commonwealth’s prisons, many of whom are elderly and have outgrown crime tendencies. The consequences of doubling down is a bigger loss. Yet that is the direction our government stubbornly chooses.
Floyd Wilson, Chairman
PCRA Initiative, Lifers, Inc.