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Kate Cioffi

CAS 138T
Improving the Economics of Pennsylvanias Prison System
What is the Problem?
Americas rapidly growing incarceration rate has been a subject of interest and debate in
recent years. Though the United States contains about five percent of the world population, our
nations prisons account for twenty percent of the global inmate population (Prison Facts).
This statistic is, of course, vastly disproportionate, and a cause for concern amongst government
officials and citizens alike. In fact, since 1978 our countrys prison population has increased by a
staggering 408 percent, which is far greater than our population growth (The Prison Crisis).
Surprisingly, this figure does not closely align with trends in crime rates. Congressional Research
Service reports that over the past two decades, homicide and violent crime rates are actually at
historic lows (James). This begs the question of exactly why so many people are now being
sentenced to serve time in prison. Is Americas justice system truly using its authority and
resources effectively?
This phenomenon, known as mass incarceration, is largely attributed to the American
legal systems strict treatment of drug offenses (Koch, Holden). When America first began its
famous war on drugs, in the 1970s, it was unlikely that officials could foresee the extreme
effects of such a stringent course of action. The resulting set of policies, which are very severe in
most parts of the country, have led to over half of Americas federal prison population being
composed of nonviolent drug offenders (Koch, Holden). This is not, however, only a national
problemPennsylvania has the highest rate of incarceration among all states in the northeast,
with the prison population growing by 28 percent from 2002 to 2012 (Justice Reinvestment
Initiative) and this is being largely contributed to by drug arrests (Pennsylvania). Mandatory

sentencing is a great contributor to this spike in prison rates, as it is a policy that requires a
minimum length of time to be served in prison for a specific crime, like drug possession. In this
instance, it is dependent on the quantity of drugs implicated, with the sentence depending on
either federal or state laws (Sterling).
After someone is released from prison, they have very limited options in terms of
supporting themselves. A criminal record is often difficult for employers to look beyond. Even if
a job interview goes exceptionally well, former inmates usually run into trouble when it comes
time to prospective employers doing a background check. In fact, a 2008 study conducted by the
Urban Institute found that only 45 percent of 740 recently released prisoners currently held a job
eight months after their release (Visher, Sherrill, and Yahner). With the nearly 18,000 people
released from Pennsylvania prisons each year (Thompson), many of whom are capable of
holding down jobs, the Pennsylvanian workforce is greatly missing out on a large portion of
people who can contribute to the economy.
A small number of states are beginning to employ a program aimed towards reducing
recidivism, the reincarceration of an individual, and, further, the costs of prisons in general.
Known as Performance Incentive Funding, or PIF, these programs reward local jurisdictions and
supervision agencies that actively decrease the number of individuals that are reincarcerated,
which as mentioned above, is a large group of people (Performance Incentive Funding). The
state then rewards these localities with some of the savings earned by sending fewer people to
prison. This money then goes towards improving and expanding upon corrections programs in
the community (Performance Incentive Funding), which may include probation, which is an
alternative to prison in which the offender is instead under supervision while living in the
community, or parole, an early release from prison (Community Corrections).

Proposed Policies
As mentioned above, certain offenses, such as drug and gun possession, tend to receive
standardized, and often very harsh, sentences. In Pennsylvania, the responsibility of determining
if a case should be assigned mandatory minimum sentencing is usually assigned only to the
judge, rather than a jury as in federal cases, and is often preferred by prosecutors due to its ability
to harshly sentence defendants (Yates). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court should therefore repeal
the use of mandatory minimum sentencing with crimes involving the possession and dealing of
drugs, while maintaining minimums as a guideline for other more serious offenses, such as
murder or homicide. Instead, drug offenses should be looked at on an individual basis, while also
considering the criminal history of the offender. Repeat offenses would thus be sentenced more
harshly than first-time offenses, and the circumstances and level of involvement (Hambright)
in the crime would be more of a deciding factor for the judge, rather than simply the amount of
drugs involved.
In this vein, Pennsylvania should reconsider its current model of labeling crimes. Based
on the type and amount of drug involved, drug offenses may range from being felonies, with up
to seven years in prison, to misdemeanors, with anywhere from no time in prison to less than five
years (Pennsylvania Criminal Laws). All drug possessions that are the defendants first offense
should be demoted to class three misdemeanors, or for mild cases, ungraded misdemeanors.
Other nonviolent drug offenses may also receive a lightened sentence based on the conclusions
of the judge, and offenders convicted of these crimes that are currently in prison may have their
sentences retroactively reduced. In Pennsylvania, class three misdemeanors carry a maximum
prison or local jail sentence of one year, or a fine of $2,500. (McMorrow). Often reserved only
for very small possessions of marijuana, ungraded misdemeanors usually do not carry any jail

time, but are rather focused on license suspension and fines (Drug Offenses). Half of the
savings earned by enacting this plan would go towards in-prison and post-release programs to
consistently treat drug addiction, while the other half would go back in the state budget to be
used where necessary.
To improve rates of recidivism, Pennsylvania should enact Performance Incentive
Funding programs. Local corrections agencies should be compensated for their ability to
decrease crime rates in parolees and probationers, based on certain performance-based
measures predetermined by the state (Performance Incentive Funding). Community
corrections agencies would then receive 35 percent of the savings made by state prisons in order
to further fund their programs. Also, similar to the existing Job Creation Tax Credit program,
Pennsylvania businesses may receive tax credit for employing previously incarcerated
individuals. A minimum of ten of these individuals must be employed by the company in order
for them to qualify, with the company receiving a $2,500 credit amount per individual. They may
claim this credit against the same state taxes that the current job creation program can exempt,
including personal income tax (Tax Credits and Programs).
Why these Policies will Help
Due to the extremely high volume of inmates in Pennsylvania prisons, there is clearly a
deep fiscal strain being created. The costs incurred by Pennsylvania state prisons are not
sustainable In the year 2010 alone, the total cost of maintaining prisons in Pennsylvania was
$2.1 billion, which extended half a billion dollars beyond the budget for corrections (The Price
of Prisons). There is an average cost of about $36,000 per inmate every year, which very
quickly adds up when extended across the 50,000 people that are in Pennsylvania state prisons
(Prison Facts). This is in part due to the increase from eight to 27 state prisons over the past

thirty years, reflecting the rapidly increasing rates of incarceration (Prison Facts). One of the
biggest individual costs included in this figure is for inmate health care, which is over $230
million dollars annually (The Price of Prisons). The entirety of these costs, of course, falls on
the Pennsylvanian taxpayer. In reducing the number of inmates by enacting the policy proposed
in this report, we would be greatly reducing the costs incurred by our state prisons, and, ideally,
help costs to remain within the budget. If the portion of the state budget dedicated towards public
safety and corrections, which currently makes up about seven percent of the total budget, was
lessened, this would provide room for other areas of the budget to expand. These areas may
involve functions that actually benefit the average taxpayer, like health care or higher education,
since Pennsylvania is one of the only four states in the country where spending for higher
education is less than that for corrections (Justice Reinvestment Initiative).
Safety is a common concern in decreasing the prison population. Would releasing more
inmates, and sentencing fewer people to prison in the first place, be putting our communities in
danger? The answer seems to be no. As the policy outlines, strictly nonviolent offenders would
be affected by the proposal to forego mandatory minimum sentencing and receive lightened
sentences. The sentencing policies for these nonviolent drug offenders are both too general and
severe, a notion supported by the opinion of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which recently
deemed this method of sentencing as unconstitutional. (Mandatory Minimum Sentences).
These nonviolent offenders make up a sizeable portion of state prison populationsalmost half
of inmates in state prisons were put there after committing nonviolent crimes (Prison Facts).
Of course, these crimes cannot be seen as admissible, but many people see the potential in
rehabilitating these offenders in order to keep them out of prison.

Substance abuse runs rampant amongst the inmate population it is estimated that about
70 percent of inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons have an addiction to drugs or alcohol
(Benzing). Though drug rehabilitation is often an arduous, and sometimes unfruitful, effort, it
does work in many instances, and could use more funding as outlined in the policy suggested. A
study conducted in a California prison by psychologist Dr. Harry K. Wexler found that by
implementing a comprehensive drug treatment program for prisoners, the rate of recidivism was
decreased by almost 50 percent (Inmate Drug Abuse). A key part in reducing this rate was the
use of aftercare when the prisoners had been released. Spending five years in prison alone will
not reform these offenders nearly as effectively as getting continuous psychiatric help for their
addictions will.
By rehabilitating and treating offenders, Pennsylvania may also stand a chance at
consistently reducing recidivism rates. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a program
meant to reduce recidivism that has recently been enacted in many states with funding from the
U.S. Department of Justices Bureau of Justice Assistance, was signed into law in 2012 in
Pennsylvania (Gilliland). Pennsylvanias form of the program, however, does not closely mirror
that of other states that have found success with JRI. In Pennsylvania, any money saved from
prison reform is given to local communities to drive further savings, while the money saved
from reforms in Texas, where the program began, goes into drug treatment programs for
offenders as an alternative to prison (Gilliland). The latter approach has much more foresight, as
rehabilitation works to reduce incarceration rates in the long-term, thus increasing savings.
Pennsylvania should therefore adopt a plan to fund these programs in order to produce
considerable change.

Another economic issue with mass incarceration is the idea that prisoners do not really
have any way to contribute to the economy, and instead take advantage of the system. Many
people who have been in prison for long periods of time no longer even make enough of an
income to necessitate filing taxes, or if they do, the amount they pay is often very small (How to
File Taxes). Even after their release, offenders often have difficulty finding ways to help
stimulate the economy. As mentioned, they frequently face issues finding jobs with a criminal
record. 76 percent of former prisoners, in fact, said that they feel that getting a job after being in
prison was difficult or nearly impossible (Vega). In a statement to the LA times, David
Patterson, a former prisoner, points out if you already did the time, it shouldnt be an issue to
get a job (Semuels). If the Pennsylvania government were to provide incentives for businesses to
hire ex-convicts looking for work, there would be more taxpayers to provide for various
functions, like qstate-funded programs.
Even though the recent recession caused the job market to become an extremely
competitive playing field, Pennsylvania does not have a shortage of jobs. In fact, in 2015, the
Harrisburg area found that there were more jobs available than people willing to take these
positions, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (Marroni). Some of
the industries with the most open jobs included truck driving and customer service, which are
two entry-level fields that would be very fitting for the many recently-released prisoners. If these
types of businesses were incentivized initially to hire former inmates, Pennsylvanias economy
would undoubtedly become stronger.

Conclusion

To summarize, the Pennsylvanian justice system needs serious improvements in order to


maintain its effectiveness. The path that the state is currently taking is economically
unsustainable, and could be ameliorated in a multitude of ways. The proposal outlined above
would not only help to decrease some of the exorbitant costs incurred by state prison systems,
but also aid in keeping people out of prison in the first place by reworking how certain
nonviolent offenses are handled. Rehabilitation for drug offenders is another point of the
proposal, since it has been seen as essential in helping to reduce recidivism rates in other areas.
In order to reduce recidivism further, inmates should be given legitimate opportunities for
employment to avoid reverting to their own habits. The only way to fix the states massincarceration problem is by working with its recoverable offenders, not by disregarding their
needs. With a state motto of Virtue, liberty, and independence, Pennsylvania could
undoubtedly be working harder to help all of its citizensregardless of their situation.

References

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