Prisoners serving short sentences in Pennsylvania sometimes end up staying locked up longer than necessary while waiting for a seat in a job training class or a chance at rehab. Activists and a state Senator want to cut the bureaucratic delays to save money.
Let’s say a man gets a one to three year sentence on a non-violent drug charge in Pennsylvania, and his release, in the minimum time of one year, is contingent upon him completing a vocational training class. Simple, right? Well, not according to Pennsylvania Prison Society Policy Director Ann Schwartzman.
“There’s not enough time to get processed, to get classified, and to get into whatever programs they need to to meet that minimum sentence,” she said. “So they end up spending more time in prison, which costs more money even though they’re really the non-violent offender who doesn’t necessarily need to be there.”
Schwartzman says the problem is all too common in Pennsylvania. The state’s prisons are now about 40 percent full of non-violent offenders. Senator Stewart Greenleaf has come on board the issue.
“They end up spending about 146 percent of their minimum sentence…past their minimum sentence in the state prison, and we’re wasting time and money because they should have been out,” said Greenleaf. “They could go to a corrections center and receive that rehabilitation, the education, vocational training and other things that there needed to be, there.”
That’s what Senator Greenleaf’s Criminal Justice Reform Act proposes: allowing early release on parole and allowing criminals to complete rehab elsewhere. Ann Schwartzman explains.
“People could come into the system with those short minimum sentences and go on a fast track where in the time it takes to process them, they could be moved to a pre-release center, not take up a scarce prison bed, and then be on their way to re-entering into the community,” said Schwartzman.
She says it’s unclear how much money the state would save by implementing such a program. The state spends about $33,000 a year per prisoner, but it doesn’t necessarily save all of that money by letting someone out of prison. Still, Schwartzman says, the state would save something.
Senator Greenleaf’s bill is expected to come up for a vote in Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee soon.