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February 24, 2012 | By | Posted in Governor

PA DOC: Early release of prisoners could save money

No increase in department for first time
 
By Stacy Brown | PA Independent
 
HARRISBURG — A prison inmate costs Pennsylvania taxpayers about $35,000 a year, or roughly $14,000 more than the annual cost to attend Penn State University with room and board.

And, with Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed flat-level funding of $1.8 billion for the state Department of Corrections, or DOC, officials are seeking ways to be more frugal and efficient, which could mean earlier releases for some inmates. This comes at a time when inmates sent to out-of-state prisons are returning this year to Pennsylvania.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel is expected to appear before the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday to discuss Corbett's proposal and the department's plan to run prisons more efficiently.
 
"We're not just going to release inmates. We have people who are ready to be paroled but aren’t released in a timely manner, because the system is inefficient, and that’s a waste of money," said department spokeswoman Sue Bensinger. "We just want to make the process smoother. We are not lowering the bar or changing our policy."
 
Bensinger said that while violent inmates will remain in custody, nonviolent inmates eligible for parole would be better served in community-based programs, such as drug and alcohol treatment facilities.
 
While those who have committed crimes such as murder, arson and aggravated assault are considered violent inmates, prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses, theft and white-collar crimes are viewed as nonviolent.
 
Still, the department must achieve better efficiency as about a third of the cases that come up for parole each day cannot be heard in a timely manner because of a lack of staff, Bensinger said.
 
Also, if the inmate is granted parole, the current time to process that new status is 101 days, she said.
 
"That is inefficient," Bensinger said. This inefficiency costs the taxpayer an extra $94.90 each day per inmate, according to the department.
 
The state currently houses 51,400 inmates, according to the DOC.
 
State funding to the department represents a 7.4 percent of Corbett's $28 billion budget, including $60 million in annual overtime costs.
 
Meanwhile, the prisoners sent to Michigan returned last year and those in Virginia are slated to be returned next month, according to the DOC. The decision to transfer inmates to these out-of-state prisons was made in 2010.
 
The 1,111 inmates sent to Michigan and the 1,010 sent to Virginia were at a cost of $62 per day, or $22,630 per year, a savings of about two-thirds the cost of keeping them here. Currently, it costs $94.90 per day for each inmate to be housed in Pennsylvania, according to the DOC.
 
Corbett recalled the inmates, because Pennsylvania decided to pay less money to counties in the commonwealth to house nonviolent state prisoners.
 
County facilities statewide, including Cambria, Beaver, Armstrong and Indiana, have been paid between $47 and $60 per day, per inmate, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
 
Since it started accepting the nonviolent prisoners, Indiana County has earned an extra $1 million per year, said Indiana County Jail Warden Carol Hummel.
 
"It offsets my budget and goes in to the general fund," she said. "That's the advantage to the county."
 
Cambria also has earned an additional $1 million per year, while Armstrong took in $321,000 and Beaver raked in $328,000, according to independent calculations based on the number of inmates and the cost.
 
The state benefits, the warden continued, because it has its prisoners housed somewhere safe and at a lower cost. The inmates can even get some of the programming they need to be able to make parole. "It's been a win-win-win," Hummel said.
 
Monday's hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. in the North Office Building of the state Capitol.
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