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January 2, 2010

Pennsylvania reconsidering toughest sentencing laws due to prison overcrowding

This article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is headlined "Pa. sentencing guidelines eyed: Throw-away-the-key policy has state prisons bursting at the seams," details how Pennsylvania is being forced to rethink certain sentencing laws and policies. Here is how the effective piece starts:

Faced with a serious overpopulation of its prisons and now the need to ship inmates to other states, state legislators may consider easing some harsh sentencing guidelines so that nonviolent offenders aren't automatically sent to prison for lengthy terms.

State Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said judges should be given more latitude in deciding on sentences for minor offenses -- leeway they don't have now due to mandatory sentencing laws approved 10 or 20 years ago in the heyday of "lock 'em up, throw away the key" thinking.

"We are throwing some prisoners, including many from the inner city, into the pit for small offenses, and they don't get help for their problems," he said at a recent Judiciary Committee meeting, where one interested observer was outgoing state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side. He's leaving the Legislature for his new job as a Common Pleas judge in Allegheny County.

One new tool to help reduce prison overcrowding, said state Corrections Department Deputy Secretary William Sprenkle, would be to allow any prisoner with eight months left on his or her sentence to serve the time at a pre-release center or halfway house. "Short-time offenders are clogging up our prison system," he said.

There also are rules involving drug offenses, such as a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing as little as two grams of cocaine within 2,500 feet of a school, Mr. Caltagirone said. Perhaps that could be adjusted, he said, such as by reducing the distance from a school or raising the amount of the drug a person possesses before a prison term is mandated. Persons convicted of having small amounts of cocaine and who are not seen as a violent threat to the community could perhaps serve their sentence in a halfway house instead of adding to the prison population.

Some lawmakers fear that worsening overcrowding could lead to prison riots or federal lawsuits against the state. But obviously there are risks with expanding parole, both political and public safety-related. No legislator wants to be seen as "soft on crime" if he or she votes to let more convicted criminals get out on parole, even if they are still monitored via ankle bracelets and parole officers.

And no matter how careful state officials are in classifying a parolee as "nonviolent," it's almost impossible to be right 100 percent of the time, Mr. Caltagirone admitted. The population of the state's 27 prisons is now more than 51,000 and growing, compared to capacity of 43,000, and one reason for that was a horrible event that happened in Philadelphia two years ago.

A prisoner with two years left on his sentence was paroled after 10 years. A few weeks later he killed a Philadelphia policeman, outraging the police and public. Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, imposed a moratorium on all paroles for a few months, causing the prison population to rise by 3,000.

Mr. Sprenkle said Pennsylvania will soon begin shipping 2,000 inmates to prisons in two other states, Michigan and Virginia. Half of them will leave in February and the other 1,000 will be moved in March and April. Michigan and Virginia will supply the transportation.

January 2, 2010 at 09:58 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I am a PA resident with an interest in justice, initiated when a relative went to prison.

Part of the problem is that sentencing guidelines in PA provide for a sentinge range. Originally, the "minimum" coincided (as intended by the legislature) with the time to be served in prison (assuming good time), and the maximum allowed for time on supervised release. Under the politics of the Ridge amministration, things changed, but the sentencing guidelines did not. Now, prisoners are expected to serve their maximum, with any time on parole considered "early release". The politics of this are tying the hands of the politicians, especially considering that there will always be some convict on parole who will do a criminal act, thus exacerbating the claimed "and he was released early" meme. Maybe the problem could be resolved by changing the guidelines to specifying a minimum period of incarceration, instead of a range. The overcrowding would be resolved eventually by this method. A parole range then can be pronounced explicitely for each sentence. Politicians' problem solved.

I believe the federal government and many other states use the recommended sentencing policy, and their overcrowding and political problems are minimized therein.

Posted by: wishful | Jan 4, 2010 11:30:13 AM

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