Last month, President Trump signed into the law the First Step Act, federal prison reform legislation that was hailed on both sides of the political aisle as the most significant in a generation.
More good news comes from Pennsylvania this week, where the Department of Corrections (DOC) reported the sharpest decline in state prison population ever.
Efforts to effect prison and sentencing reform are working, to the benefit of not just inmates, but taxpayers, too.
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The First Step Act will allow thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future. It affects only the federal system, which includes about 181,000 imprisoned people, less than 10 percent of the overall national prison population of 2.1 million. Proof that it had bipartisan support is that the legislation’s supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime, an organization backed by the Koch brothers.
Bipartisan support of the 2012 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) is, likewise, credited with the Pennsylvania’s success. The drop in population by 1,068 in 2018 (to 47,370) represents the sixth time in the seven years since JRI passed that the population has declined, for a total state population drop of 3,814.
At an estimated cost of $42,000 to house a single prisoner for a year, the state will spend some $16 million less in 2019. Even for a $32 billion state budget, that is noteworthy.
More improvement is expected through the second Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI2), passed by the state Senate last year and endorsed by Gov. Wolf. It addresses parole and probation, sentencing and pretrial practices, according to the Commonwealth Foundation. Among the standout reforms is that it provides more resources to the county probation systems.
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The goal of providing more money for county probation work is a reminder of another key facet to justice system operations: staffing.
The threat from drugs and other contraband, drone use and other tactics was on full display in Pennsylvania last year with a two-week lockdown after exposure to synthetic drugs sickened numerous employees and inmates.
Smaller populations can make our state prisons safer for correctional officers and other staff, and it can reduce overtime and stress. With that, the decline in population should not be an automatic signal to cut staff.