HARRISBURG (October 4)- The Pennsylvania House of Representatives today passed legislation to add new reforms to the commonwealth's systems of criminal sentencing and parole. The intent of the bill, Senate Bill 1161, is to provide much-needed relief to the state's bursting prison system, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, a supporter of the bill.
"Our prison system is at its breaking point," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The passage of this bill, while not perfect, is another sign that the legislature is getting smart on crime."
SB 1161, introduced by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County), tasks the Commission on Sentencing with devising guidelines that judges can use to consider alternative programs for defendants. The bill also empowers the Board of Probation and Parole to release inmates who have served their minimum sentence but who have not finished required programming, which can then be completed while on parole, and to use "evidence-based practices" in supervising parolees who have violated parole but who have not committed a new crime.
"The intention here is to keep technical parole violators out of prison," Hoover said. "Being late for a meeting with a parole officer is not a reason to send someone back to prison."
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, then-secretary Dr. Jeffrey Beard of the Department of Corrections stated that 3,000 technical parole violators returned to state correctional institutions in 2008.
The bill's passage has been driven by increased costs of corrections. The Department of Corrections was one of the few agencies to receive a budget increase in this year's state budget, and by 2013, the commonwealth will build four new prisons at a cost of more than $800 million. The current system cannot handle its current inmate population. In fact, approximately 2,000 inmates are currently housed in Virginia and Michigan due to a lack of beds in Pennsylvania.
"The status quo is unsustainable," Hoover said. "If we continue on our current path, corrections will continue to be sucking up valuable tax dollars."
The House amended SB 1161, so it must now return to the Senate for a concurrence vote before going to Governor Rendell.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania supported the three bill package on prison reform that passed the Senate in June. Hoover noted that the Senate's trio of bills was stronger than the current version of SB 1161 and that there is still plenty of work to be done.
"There is no single policy that will solve our prison problems," Hoover said. "It took many years of ineffective policies to get us where we are now. It will take more years and more reform to get Pennsylvania to the point where it will significantly reduce its prison population, as has happened in other states."