Dissatisfied by the grim circumstances of the stagnate economy, onerous tax burden and difficult budget cuts, Keystone residents are faced with an uphill battle ahead. Fortunately, there is one government department that has managed to save taxpayers several hundred million dollars. These savings have allowed the department to hold the line on a budget increase, thus, breaking a ten-year trend for additional state funding. For a department that has grown at an astonishing rate, this recent development proves to be promising in alleviating the state’s budget crisis. State officials are also taking the legislative initiative to increase the department’s effectiveness, which will provide even more relief for taxpayers.
Earlier this month, John Wetzel, Department of Corrections Secretary, testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. In his testimony, Secretary Wetzel reported that the state’s inmate population is projected to flatten out. The secretary asserted that with some reforms, the prison population could even decrease. The department has attributed the big savings and the leveling of the inmate population to a significant decrease in the recidivism rate. The Board of Probation and Parole has reduced the rate of inmates returning to prison from 55 percent to 42 percent in just three years. This recent success has been attributed to crime-reducing treatment programs designed at rewarding prisoner’s good behavior.
The Department of Corrections has become the third largest department within the state budget. This makes their recent success story even more monumental. The state inmate population has rapidly grown by more than 500 percent since 1980. Corrections spending soared by a staggering 1,700 percent over the past 30 years. It was impossible for Pennsylvania to build enough prisons to keep up with this growing inmate population. State prisons are more than 13 percent above capacity even with the construction of 18 additional facilities.
Lawmakers are now answering Secretary Wetzel’s call for legislation aimed at reducing the inmate population and recidivism rate. Senate Judiciary Chairman Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) and Senator Brubaker (R-Lancaster) are avid supporters of Senate Bill 100. The judiciary chair asserts that current parole violations are accompanied by stern punishments and lengthy prison sentences that prove costly to taxpayers: $35,000 per inmate per year. Senator Brubaker explains that his co-sponsored legislation would permit for more nonviolent offenders to participate in successful rehabilitation programs. Senate Bill 100 recently passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the House.
The savings achieved by the Department of Corrections, at a time when other state expenditures are steadily increasing, are a point of relief for the budget. The reports showing signs of fiscal restraint in a department that has a long history of immense expenditure expansions are promising to say the least. Lawmakers in the Senate have acted swiftly to deliver legislation to further support programs that are successfully saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. It is now up to the State House to pass Senate Bill 100 and so that the Governor can sign these reforms into law.