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October 27, 2008 -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)

State Hopes New Prisons, Early Release Cut Crowding

By Tom Barnew

HARRISBURG -- A steady rise in the number of inmates and the political risks of paroling prisoners early are complicating the state's efforts to ease crowded conditions in its prisons.

The 27 existing lockups now hold nearly 47,000 inmates, which is up from a population of just over 36,000 in 1998. The number of inmates is now 8 percent over the current capacity of 43,300.

And the tide keeps on rising. State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard estimates that the overall prison population could top 57,000 by the end of 2012. Legislators' desire to be "tough on crime" and the public's fear of rising drug-related crimes have led to longer and more mandatory sentences.

Correctional costs, at $1.6 billion for 2008-09, are the third biggest item in the $28 billion state budget, after education and welfare costs.

Progress to ease the crowded cells is going slowly. The Department of Corrections wants to build three new state prisons, each costing $200 million and holding 2,000 inmates. But the first of the three new prisons won't be open before mid-to late 2011.

The state Legislature has enacted a new law, one advocated by House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia. It's aimed at making more nonviolent prisoners eligible for early release. They would have to complete programs to ease their transition back into society, such as anger management and overcoming drug use, before being paroled.

By paroling more appropriate prisoners, officials believe they can moderate the rising tab for prison construction and operational costs, and thus ease the financial strain on state taxpayers.

But giving parole to the wrong inmate -- one who later commits another crime -- can spell political disaster. It happened in September, when an inmate released early from the State Correctional Institution Frackville shot and killed a Philadelphia police officer just a month after getting out of prison. The parolee had been jailed for a 1998 robbery and aggravated assault.

Gov. Ed Rendell, a former mayor of Philadelphia, found himself under pressure from police unions and citizens groups, and imposed a temporary moratorium on all parolees, nonviolent as well as violent.

The moratorium was lifted last week for nonviolent prisoners, whom Mr. Rendell defines as prisoners "with no history of a violent offense."

The corrections department and the Board of Probation and Parole will decide if an inmate qualifies as nonviolent and thus can be let out of prison early.

But deciding if an inmate is truly nonviolent can be tricky, said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo. Sometimes an inmate is jailed for a nonviolent offense, such as drug buying or selling, burglary or other crimes against property, but more serious charges had been dismissed or plea-bargained away.

Violent crimes include things like murder, assault, robbery and rape. State parole and prisons officials will take an inmate's complete history into account before allowing him to be released on parole, Mr. Ardo said.

Mr. Rendell named a Temple University official, John S. Goldkamp, to study whether nonviolent inmates could be safely paroled. He recommended last week that parole "be restarted for nonviolent offenders [only]."

Mr. Rendell said, "The moratorium on paroles for all violent offenders remains in effect."

Prisons spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said a thorough review will be made of all inmates considered nonviolent, but she couldn't say how many of them would eventually be eligible for paroles or when the paroles would start.

As for the three new prisons, the first will go on the grounds of the existing SCI Rockview in Centre County. A construction manager and an architect will soon be chosen by of the state Department of General Services. A ground-breaking is expected in 2009 and the project would take about two years to complete.

"Rockview was selected because there is plenty of state-owned land there to build upon and the new prison can share functions, such as warehouses and a business office, with the prison that's already there," said Ms. McNaughton.

A second new prison is to be built somewhere in Fayette County, which already has one. Corrections officials are now scouting several other sites in Fayette County for the second prison, with a decision expected by next spring.

There are several counties where the third new prison could be built, including two sites in Schuylkill and one each in Northumberland, Huntingdon and Luzerne. Another possibility is on the grounds of Graterford state prison outside Philadelphia.

Mr. O'Brien this fall pushed for House Bill 4, which is designed to help nonviolent inmates turn their lives around while behind bars and qualify for early release. A judge would outline the incentive program to a convict at his post-trial sentencing.

"The incentives would encourage nonviolent inmates to follow a path that gives them a much better chance at re-entering society without committing new crimes," Mr. O'Brien said.

Such programs would include recovery from drug and alcohol abuse or addiction; literacy and high school diploma equivalency courses; job training; and anger management.

The program for inmates "will enhance public safety and provide large financial benefits to governments and taxpayers," Mr. O'Brien said.

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