Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Advocates Urge Caution in Closing Prisons

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Governor Tom Wolf wants to close two state prisons to cut costs, but civil-rights advocates fear that could lead to overcrowding. Closing the prisons by June 30th could save the cash-strapped commonwealth as much as $160 million in the coming fiscal year. There are fewer prisoners in the state than there were at the peak five years ago.

But, according to spokesperson Andrew Hoover with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the overall decrease in population of the state's 26 prisons has been less than five-percent.

"It's necessary to monitor how that transition happens and if it happens smoothly," he said. "We don't want to see a situation where inmates are being crowded into fewer prisons and as a result, conditions deteriorate."

Legislators with prisons in or near their districts are concerned by a potential loss of jobs. Just which prisons will close could be announced Thursday.

But the state didn't always have so many prisoners. Hoover points out that, like many states, Pennsylvania adopted "get tough on crime" laws in the 1980s with minimum mandatory sentences and longer terms for parole eligibility.

"The long sentences in Pennsylvania's sentencing structure have led to an increase in the prison population at a time when the crime rate was actually going down," he explained.

Around 1980, there were just over 8,000 inmates in Pennsylvania's state prisons. Today there are more than 49,000.

Much of the increase in the prison population has been driven by the war on drugs. Some legislators acknowledge that mass incarceration has not solved the problem. Hoover says now they need to do something about it.

"There hasn't been the kind of restructuring of sentencing that's necessary to fulfill that promise, to make drugs more of a public-health issue than a criminal issue," he added.

Hoover notes that other states have been reducing their prison populations at much faster rates than Pennsylvania.

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