Prison system overhaul could save Pa. millions, backers say

    A package of suggested reforms to Pennsylvania’s prison system could mean millions of dollars in savings.

    And officials propose funneling the savings into the best early-intervention program the state has — law enforcement.

    The raft of legislative moves could save the state as much as $351 million, with some $80 million to be reinvested in local law enforcement.

    Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says many inmates serve sentences of less than a year – but they end up staying much longer, due to inefficiencies in the state’s prisons.

    He says the root cause of the criminal behavior by many offenders is a drug or alcohol addiction – something that’s better treated with an “alternative sentence,” outside of prison.

    “If you can put someone on electronic monitoring, and get them the treatment they need in the community, not only is it less expensive, but it’s arguably more efficient,” he said.

    Many other recommendations also can be boiled down to reducing the state prison population while minimizing the chances inmates will wind up back behind bars after they’ve finished serving time.

    As the state’s prison population is reduced, Wetzel says, it frees up money that can be shifted to help keep prison sentences down.

    “Stronger law enforcement up front, even though this seems counter-intuitive, leads to less people coming to the state because local law enforcement is interceding in individuals’ life of crime earlier on in the process,” he said. “The research indicates that’s what the effect is. “

    For five months, a group of lawmakers, judges, and state government leaders has been working with a national policy group on reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

    Gov. Tom Corbett and Wetzel both have said the entire reforms package should be passed by the state Legislature before the summer recess.

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