Auditor General Says PA Needs Sentencing Reform, Construction Freeze to Shrink Corrections Cost

(GantDaily Graphic)

HARRISBURG – Auditor General Jack Wagner said Thursday that Pennsylvania could save $50 million in fiscal year 2011-12 and $350 million over four years if Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly better utilize existing alternative-sentencing programs and implement other reforms as a way to curb Pennsylvania‘s unsustainable increases in prison costs.

Those taxpayer savings are in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs that could be saved by eliminating construction of new facilities needed to hold Pennsylvania‘s burgeoning inmate population, one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

Increased utilization of alternative-sentencing programs would provide more opportunities for rehabilitation of non-violent inmates and reduce the cost of housing prisoners, a cost that has tripled over the past 30 years, Wagner added. Over 19,000, or 39 percent, of the inmates in Pennsylvania‘s state prison population are non-violent offenders.  Wagner further added that, by expanding alternative-sentencing measures, Pennsylvania could institute a moratorium on new prison construction.

“With Pennsylvania facing its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, we must look for sustainable savings in every nook and cranny of state government, and that includes the criminal-justice system, which is one of the three biggest drivers of increased spending over the past decade,” Wagner said.

He noted that Pennsylvania‘s state budget has grown at twice the inflation rate over the past 10 years, from $19 billion to $28 billion, an increase of 47 percent. Corrections spending helped fuel the increase, with the Department of Corrections’ General Fund budget over the last 10 years increasing by $430 million.

Spending increased because Pennsylvania‘s inmate population has exploded over the past generation.  Due in part to tougher sentencing guidelines, particularly with drug-related offenses, Pennsylvania‘s prison population is five times higher now than it was 30 years ago, rising from 8,243 in 1980 to 51,487 in 2010.  The Dept. of Corrections projects that the prison population will swell to 61,146 by 2014 if existing trends continue.

In 2009, Pennsylvania had the fastest-growing prison population in the nation, adding 2,122

inmates. Florida was second, adding 1,527.

Largest increases in Prison Population (2009)

  1. Pennsylvania +2,122
  2. Florida +1,527
  3. Indiana +1,496
  4. Louisiana +1,399
  5. Alabama +1,053


The commonwealth is addressing the increase by spending $862 million in taxpayer money to construct four new correctional institutions and four housing units – but the 9,000 additional beds are expected to be occupied as soon as construction is completed.

“While most economic sectors in the commonwealth remain mired in recession, prisons remain Pennsylvania‘s largest growth industry,” Wagner said.

To handle its prisoner overflow, Pennsylvania last year signed five-year contracts worth $250 million to send 2,000 inmates to prisons in Michigan and Virginia. Wagner said this was a short-term solution that does not address the long-term problem of rising prison costs.

The annual cost per inmate nearly tripled, rising from $11,447 in 1980 to $32,059 in 2009, driven in part by the state’s aging inmate population. In 1980, there were 370 prisoners aged 50 or older; in 2009, there were 7,949.

Wagner said that several states that once had the fastest-growing prison populations are now among the leaders in shrinking prison populations because they have already taken several reform measures.

Largest Decrease in Prison Population (2009)

  1. California -4,257
  2. Michigan -3,260
  3. New York -1,699
  4. Maryland -1,315
  5. Texas -1,257


States seeking to decrease their prison populations and decrease prison costs have taken a wide range of steps, including:

  • Texas – Invested $240 million to overhaul its criminal justice system, instead of spending $2 billion to build new prisons.
  • New York – Scaled back laws to reduce the scope of mandatory sentences and implemented “merit time” credits and other incentives for inmates’ participation in education and vocational training, treatment, and other services to speed parole consideration.
  • Illinois – Implemented a new early release program that allows as many as 1,000 non-violent offenders to finish their sentences outside of a prison.
  • Michigan – Reformed its system focusing on job placement programs and prudent use of parole.  


Pennsylvania has instituted several alternative-sentencing programs, including:

  • The State Intermediate Punishment Program, which is a two-year substance abuse program designed to correct the link between substance abuse and crime.
  • Community Correction Centers, or half-way houses, to provide 24-hour supervision and counseling services to inmates who present the least risk to the community and who are permitted to work and attend school.
  • The Parole Violator Center Program, which is designed to divert technical parole violators from incarceration while successfully addressing the behaviors within a safe and secure environment.
  • The Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp serves as an alternative to the traditional state prison and allows eligible inmates to serve a reduced six-month sentence if they successfully complete the program, which is modeled after military boot camps and instills discipline and structure through 16-hour days consisting of work and program activities.

Wagner provided several recommendations to reduce the rising cost of the criminal justice system, which he said would not apply to the most serious and violent offenders, and are aimed at non-violent offenders, many of whom have drug or alcohol addictions or are technical parole violators. Among his recommendations, which are available to the public at

  • Review the various alternative-sentencing eligibility criteria and consider removing certain ineligible offenses.
  • Expand funding for restrictive intermediate punishment program to fully realize the maximum potential of this effective and less-costly program and other less-costly programs such as Treatment Court.
  • Consider not permitting counties to send to the state those inmates with less serious offenses who have less than one year to serve on their sentence.
  • Implement greater use of intensive, effective electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders.  
  • Enact Sen. Stewart Greenleaf‘s (R-12th) “Criminal Justice Reform Act.”  
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