WILKES-BARRE — Auditor General Eugene DePasquale this week said Pennsylvania could potentially save millions of taxpayer dollars and make society safer and stronger by continuing to reform the state’s criminal justice system.
DePasquale released a special report outlining 18 recommendations to encourage continued bipartisan interest and cooperation in enacting criminal justice reform at the state and county levels.
“Beyond creating a more equitable approach to enforcing our laws, enacting criminal justice reforms can produce big savings for Pennsylvania taxpayers,” DePasquale said. “We also need to make sure to invest in efforts to give inmates the ability to successfully re-enter society and avoid returning to prison.”
The incarceration rate in the United States is the world’s highest, with approximately 700 out of every 100,000 residents behind bars. Pennsylvania’s rate is even higher, at roughly 725 per 100,000 people.
The state Department of Corrections spent $2.6 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year to incarcerate approximately 46,000 people. Roughly $101 million of that total is spent every year to incarcerate people who have committed no new crimes but have instead technically violated their probation or parole by, for example, missing curfew.
DePasquale noted that Pennsylvania has made progress, including through a Clean Slate law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf that removes some types of criminal records from public databases. The law’s goal is to make it easier for people convicted of nonviolent crimes that occurred more than 10 years ago to move past the stigma of having a criminal record.
He also pointed to the success and $543 million estimated cost savings of Pennsylvania’s first Justice Reinvestment Initiative, enacted in 2012 under former Gov. Tom Corbett. The state’s prison population and crime rate have fallen steadily since then, showing that it’s possible to incarcerate fewer people while protecting public safety.
“It took some time, but people on both sides of the aisle finally realized that the ‘lock-‘em-up, throw away the key’ approach to sentencing that began in the 1990s ultimately caused more problems than it solved,” DePasquale said. “It’s time for Pennsylvania to build on what we’ve learned and continue our progress.”
DePasquale noted that his team solicited input from more than two dozen national, state, county and local experts and stakeholders, and heard the following concerns:
Needed pre-trial reforms
Indigent defense funding: Pennsylvania remains the only state that does not provide funding for the defense of indigent defendants, instead pushing that cost onto counties.
Cash bail: Judges frequently require defendants to post cash bail, which results in low-income defendants being incarcerated prior to trial and driving additional costs to taxpayers.
Risk assessments: Critics say risk-assessment tools used to help courts determine sentences may have a disproportionately negative impact on minority defendants.
Diversionary & treatment courts: Defendants struggling with addiction may benefit from being diverted to treatment rather than jail, which can produce a lasting benefit to both the individual and society while saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Needed reforms during incarceration
Physical and mental health care: Pennsylvania spends less per inmate on health care than the national average. Shortages of mental health services throughout Pennsylvania exacerbate the problems in both state prisons and county jails, which rely largely on contractors to provide these services.
Education/workforce training: Data shows that every $1 spent on education in prison saves taxpayers $5 in related incarceration costs. In addition, Pennsylvania should remove barriers to post-prison employment to ensure inmates that receive job training can use it after their release.
Needed reforms after incarceration
Probation and parole: Currently, supervised release remains one of the biggest contributors to mass incarceration in Pennsylvania, as opposed to being a means of helping former offenders reenter society and thrive.
Pardons and clemency: The state Board of Pardons has been working to simplify the process of applying for a pardon and speed up the process of applying for clemency.
“Clearly there’s room for more reform work to be done at all levels of the criminal justice system,” DePasquale said. “We can treat people more equitably while saving taxpayers millions of dollars — something that is not only possible, but also necessary.”
Rep. Meuser announces
CARES Act homeless funds
U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Dallas, this week announced that Berks and Luzerne Counties have been awarded more than $2.4 million dollars by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support homeless Americans and individuals at risk of becoming homeless.
Berks County and Luzerne County each received Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), totaling $1,051,989 and $681,192, respectively.
This funding will support homeless families and individuals who have been affected by COVID-19.
The grants are intended to limit the spread of the virus among the homeless population and to prevent increases in homelessness due to financial distress.
The ESG announcements are in addition to the $707,893 and $1,226,697 awarded to Berks and Luzerne Counties, respectively, in initial allocations.
About HUD’s ESG-CV funding:
In accordance with the CARES Act, HUD developed a new formula for these awards, accounting for variables that quantify the population currently experiencing and at risk of homelessness.
This funding can be used to:
— Make more emergency shelters available for homeless individuals and families.
— Operate emergency shelters by providing food, rent, security, maintenance, repair, fuel, equipment, insurance, utilities, furnishings, and supplies necessary for their operation.
— Provide hotel/motel vouchers for homeless families and individuals.
— Provide essential services to people experiencing homelessness including childcare, education services, employment assistance, outpatient health services, legal services, mental health services, substance abuse treatment services, and transportation.
— Prevent individuals from becoming homeless and rapidly rehouse homeless individuals.
Shapiro: PA State Troopers
call for police hiring reform
The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association this week formally joined the coalition formed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro to end the practice of law enforcement agencies unknowingly hiring officers with documented patterns of excessive use of force or other misconduct.
“The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association supported a statewide registry from the beginning and we couldn’t have formed such a strong statewide coalition without their help,” Shapiro said. “PSTA was a vital part of our early discussions with lawmakers in 2019 and I commend them for being a constructive partner moving this key reform forward.”
The PSTA thanked Shapiro for his leadership in conducting this important work and ensuring law enforcement has a seat at the table.
A statement released by the PSTA said:
“State Troopers enforce the law without any consideration of class, color, creed or condition. We continue to believe the Pennsylvania State Police has some of the most robust accountability measures in America, but these conversations are important. We have long supported a statewide registry so our department can ensure it only hires people who are worthy of being a Pennsylvania State Trooper. We look forward to being part of this effort.”
The group consists of: the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby, President of the Pennsylvania State Lodge FOP Les Neri, Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and leaders in the Chiefs of Police Abington Chief of Police Patrick Molloy and Peters Township Chief of Police Douglas Grimes.
The group states: “Officers who engage in misconduct or use excessive force erode trust in law enforcement and make it harder for our communities to be and feel safe. When they leave an agency, or retire in lieu of termination, that record needs to go with them. We stand united in calling for reform of the hiring process so that law enforcement agencies have the information to make informed decisions about the personnel they hire.”
This group is supporting legislation to accomplish this reform, versions of which have already been introduced in both the House and Senate by Rep. Chris Rabb and Sen. Jay Costa, respectively.
Interdepartmental police hiring reform has been called for by experts and grassroots community groups as well as the State Legislature Police Reform Working Group, and has recently been introduced at the federal level.