The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature has unanimously passed a bill aimed at reducing the state's engorged prison population by shifting nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders out of prison more quickly and into treatment programs. Gov. Ed Rendell (D) signed the bill into law on November 19, and it will go into effect 180 days from that date.
Under the measure, Senate Bill 217, persons convicted of drug and drug-related offenses will be sentenced to State Intermediate Punishment, a program that sets a minimum of seven months in prison to be followed by at least two months in a drug or alcohol treatment facility, which in turn will be followed by at least six months of outpatient treatment and supervised release for the remainder of what will be a 24-month sentence.
The new law marks the first retreat from a Pennsylvania imprisonment binge that began nearly a decade ago under then Gov. Tom Ridge (R), who is currently serving as Homeland Security secretary in the Bush administration. While "tough on crime" measures appealed to voters, a nearly 50% increase in the number of state prisoners since then and the concomitant steep rise in the state's correction budget -- from $453 million in 1994 to $1.34 billion proposed for next year -- got the attention of cash-starved legislators.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the change will save the state more than $20 million a year in corrections operating costs. State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press prison spending has grown faster than any other part of the state budget. "I think we have to be smart in regard to how we incarcerate people," he said.
With this measure, Pennsylvania joins the more than half of all states that have loosened sentencing laws in the last three years, a period that coincides with the emergence of the 2001 budget crisis in the states. But with a sentencing "reform" that merely shifts carceral custody from the prison walls to the barred gates of a treatment facility and then imposes continuing supervision on nonviolent drug offenders, like the other states, Pennsylvania is not moving to end its war on drugs, only to rationalize it. Read the bill, SB217, at http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/BI/ALL/2003/0/SB0217.HTM online.