Pa. prisons growing more than most

    For the first time in nearly 40 years, the nation’s prison population has dropped.

    But the new report from the Pew Center for the States that reveals that fact also shows that Pennsylvania is headed in the other direction. It had the single largest increase in inmates last year.

    By Tom Dreisbach

    For the first time in nearly 40 years, the nationwide number of inmates in state prisons has dropped.

    But the new report from the Pew Center for the States that reveals that fact also shows that Pennsylvania is headed in the other direction. It had the single largest increase in inmates last year.   The state is on track to top next year’s list as well.

    [Audio: 100326TDPEW.mp3]

    Here’s the short-term cause of last year’s increase: After a parolee shot a Philadelphia Police Officer in late 2008, Governor Rendell stopped all paroles for two months for a review of the system.

    Mark Bergstrom is the Executive Director of the state Commission on Sentencing.

    BERGSTROM: “The decision not to parole people for a couple months really did back up people in the state’s system, and I think we’re still seeing the results of that moratorium today.”

    The Parole Board says its operations have mostly returned to normal. But even without last year’s spike, Pennsylvania faces a stubborn long-term trend: In 1980 the state housed about 8,000 inmates. Now that number’s more than 50,000.

    How did this happen?

    A state lawmaker, Rep. William Adolph (R., Delaware)  asked that very question at a state budget hearing on February 18.   The reply came from  Jeffrey Beard, who heads the state Department of Corrections.

    ADOLPH: “If you’re gonna say one word, could you say “drugs” is the biggest problem?”

    BEARD:  “I think that is the thing that has been the major driver in the growth.”

    ADOLPH: “Illegal drugs?”

    BEARD: “Yes.”

    Several experts agree that a “get tough” stance on drug crimes and stiffer sentencing rules have brought more people into prisons for longer stretches.

    It’s an expensive trend. During his budget address, Governor Rendell asked for nearly $2 billion for the Department of Corrections to pay for the added inmates. But he had this warning.

    RENDELL:   “The cost of housing prisoners in Pennsylvania continues to rise. We must reverse this trend, if for no other reason than the failure to do so threatens to overwhelm our ability to meet skyrocketing prison costs.”

    To do that, Beard argues that the state should find alternatives to sending less serious offenders to prison – such as drug treatment programs.

    But Beard told lawmakers they lack the political will to make the necessary changes.

    BEARD: “We’re not talking about doing anything with murderers and rapists, we’re talking about drug and property offenders. And as I said before, I think I’ve come here and said this stuff almost every budget hearing. And we go away and maybe we get a little bit done here and a little bit there. But nobody’s really willing to just take this and do what needs to be done.”

    And if nothing changes, the governor expects to pack 3,000 more inmates into state prisons this year.

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