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Governor Rendell Signs Bill to Further Reform of State Prisons

HARRISBURG (October 27)- Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell today signed legislation to reform the commonwealth’s sentencing and parole systems, in an attempt to address overcrowded state prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania praised the governor and the legislature for continuing reform efforts but also noted that more work needs to be done.

“The status quo is not sustainable,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Legislators and the governor recognize that simply warehousing as many people as possible is a recipe for financial disaster.”

Senate Bill 1161, introduced by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery and Bucks Counties), gives legislative approval to the practice of keeping technical parole violators out of prison. A technical parole violation occurs when a parolee violates parole in some way but does not commit a new crime. The bill also gives the Board of Probation and Parole the power to release inmates when they reach their minimum sentence if the only reason for continuing to incarcerate them is that they have not finished required programming, like drug and alcohol counseling. Inmates in that scenario will be expected to finish programming while on parole.

Finally, the bill tasks the Commission on Sentencing to devise guidelines on potential for reoffending and for rehabilitation that can be used by judges to divert defendants into programs as alternatives to incarceration.

Hoover called the bill “a good start” and said that the reform work must continue.

“This new law has the potential to have a positive impact on the state’s bursting prison system,” Hoover said. “We are disappointed, though, that the final bill was not as strong as the language passed by the Senate.”

SB 1161 originally included a provision that would allow inmates to be moved from state prisons to pre-release centers when they are within 18 months of their minimum sentence. That provision was removed by the House Judiciary Committee.

“We’d like to see the legislature try again to pass that initiative,” Hoover said. “It also did not address mandatory minimum sentencing reform this session. That is sorely needed.”

The Commission on Sentencing released a report last year that stated that mandatory minimum sentences have no impact on deterring crime. The report also recommended several reform ideas to alter mandatory minimum sentences.

The commonwealth is committed to building four new prisons by 2013. The construction costs will be more than $800 million. Former Department of Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard has stated that those four prisons will be filled to capacity shortly after they open, if the current inmate influx continues.