UPDATE: Quote by Rita Shah replaced to better reflect Shah’s position on the subject. (4/3/2012)
Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett proposed legislation for the biggest reduction in prison population in Pennsylvania’s history.
The recent proposal sparked negative responses from corrections officials across the state. This reduction would allow more than 2,500 current inmates to be immediately released based on their status. These inmates would not have to go through the normal release procedure in which they await a formal hearing to determine whether or not officials deem them prepared to be released on parole. It can take up to 100 days for an inmate who has been granted parole to be released.
Members of the Pa. state parole board and corrections officials are adamantly opposed to Corbett’s proposal. They claim that it will give prison officials the capacity to cut people loose who should not be released. According to PennLive, the Commonwealth of Pa. has sent 1,000 of its prisoners to Virginia where they are currently serving their sentences. Allowing so many prisoners to immediately be released will clog the parole system in Pa., which is also, reportedly, highly understaffed.
Dr. Rita Shah, associate professor of sociology, gave great insight and disagreed with both the parole board and corrections officials, regarding the governor’s proposed cuts.
“Essentially, the governor is calling for a reworking of the release process, but is not really changing anything else,” Shah explained. “In doing so, he is oversimplifying a rather complicated process and ignoring all of the other factors that lead to high prison rates, such as a lack of services for released prisoners, cuts in education and other crime prevention measures, and restrictive sentencing laws. Without also making changes in other areas, the number of people funneled into the prison system will continue to rise, making this one attempt a short-term answer, rather than a long-term solution.”
This issue of prison overcrowding, which is essentially what the proposal will help to lessen, is not simply a Pa. state issue. A number of states across the country, particularly California, are dealing with similar issues of overcrowding and understaffing. In an effort to combat these issues, the state wants to limit the number of housing units it uses to save money and fund alternate projects unrelated to crime prevention. However, by doing so, these programs suffer, and rather than seeking treatment, these prisoners become repeat offenders and find themselves back in jail not long after they are released.
Sophomore criminal justice major Dave Feuz feels the proposal may not have been thought through enough yet to be brought to the state’s attention. “I think a big part of the plan depends on the individual prisoner. Depending on the violation, I feel like each should be considered for release, as opposed to releasing a bulk at one time and facing the consequences of them possibly coming back in the not-so-distant future. If this means that the state will save money, I completely agree,” Feuz said.
Junior sociology major MJ Aumen agreed with Feuz, explaining that, “If an inmate has already been granted parole, I would be fine with a speedier release process. I trust the parole boards in their decisions on whom to release. However, it takes time for parolees to readjust to society. As long as they’re capable of readjusting smoothly, I see no problem.”
There are numerous mixed opinions on this issue, but Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, the former warden of the Franklin County Jail in Chambersburg, Pa., explained that, without this plan, numerous advances have already been put into place that would inhibit new changes from being made.
According to PennLive, with every 200 to 250 inmates who are released, one housing unit can be closed and the guards for that unit moved to a new location. This helps to reduce overtime, which currently costs the prison budget more than $60 million a year.
It seems as though the governor’s plan may need a few revisions based on the numerous points that have been overlooked in his current proposal. Thinking long-term and making drastic changes to the system may be the only way for it to be truly effective.