Tuesday, October 28, 2008
A steady rise in the number of inmates and the political risks of paroling prisoners early are complicating the state's efforts to ease crowded conditions in its prisons.
The 27 existing lockups now hold nearly 47,000 inmates, which is up from a population of just over 36,000 in 1998. The number of inmates is now 8 percent over the current capacity of 43,300.
And the tide keeps on rising. State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard estimates that the overall prison population could top 57,000 by the end of 2012. Legislators' desire to be "tough on crime" and the public's fear of rising drug-related crimes have led to longer and more mandatory sentences.
Correctional costs, at $1.6 billion for 2008-09, are the third biggest item in the $28 billion state budget, after education and welfare costs.
Progress to ease the crowded cells is going slowly. The Department of Corrections wants to build three new state prisons, each costing $200 million and holding 2,000 inmates. But the first of the three new prisons won't be open before mid- to late 2011.
The state Legislature has enacted a new law, one advocated by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia. It's aimed at making more nonviolent prisoners eligible for early release. They would have to complete programs to ease their transition back into society, such as anger management and overcoming drug use, before being paroled.
By paroling more appropriate prisoners, officials believe they can moderate the rising tab for prison construction and operational costs, and thus ease the financial strain on state taxpayers. [Mark Godsey]