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As Pennsylvania's inmate ranks drop, parole population grows

Written by The Associated Press | Jan 20, 2017 12:46 PM
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(Harrisburg) -- A 2012 state law that has contributed to Pennsylvania's shrinking state inmate population is also helping fuel a growing population of state parolees, long managed by an understaffed contingent of parole agents.

The shrinking inmate ranks, and the state's deficit-riddled finances, are spurring a plan by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration to close two state prisons. A decision on which prisons to close is scheduled to be revealed next Friday, while senators scheduled a hearing on it Monday.

Bret Bucklen, the Department of Corrections' director of planning, research and statistics, said courts are sentencing fewer defendants to prison. That could be driven by court-ordered changes in some drug sentences, a general drop in crime rates and efforts in bigger cities to use diversion programs, Bucklen said.

But, Bucklen said, the inmate population is also shrinking because of the 4-year-old law's limits on the length of a prison stay for parole violators.

In the meantime, parolee ranks have grown steadily and quickly.

The state inmate population has shrunk by 2,400 to 49,300 since mid-2012. Over that same period, the ranks of state parolees grew by almost 6,500 to nearly 32,000, or by one-fourth, as parole violators spent less time in prison and more on the streets.

The budget implications of limiting prison stays for parole violators are enormous. The average cost of a day on parole is about a tenth of the average cost of a day in prison, Bucklen said.

Leo Dunn, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, said his agency is getting better results with parolees, by providing them more services in the community, such as substance abuse counseling, rather than detaining them.

"We are working on a lot of different fronts to try to have people be more successful if we parole them," Dunn said.

State officials have acknowledged for the last few years that there were too few parole agents on the job. But Dunn said the Wolf administration is fixing that, hiring more agents to bring the average agent-parolee ratio down from one-to-80 to one-to-50 for medium- to high-risk parolees this year.

Still, the higher number of parolees on the streets means more are absconding -- 2,100 at last count, almost double the number over five years -- and more are committing crimes, although the proportion of criminal parole violators has remained stable, according the parole board figures.

Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania state corrections officers' union, accused state officials of gambling with public safety by leaving parolees on the streets who deserve to be locked up.

"I understand the budget, the need for money and to make cuts where you can, but I truly don't believe that public safety is where you make those cuts," Bloom said.

Parole operations may have to adjust to a Department of Corrections plan to eliminate 1,500 halfway-house bed spaces, about half the number reserved for the general male population. The plan is being driven by the state's deficit-riddled finances, and many of those beds are occupied by recent parolees who have no immediate living alternative.

Absorbing the loss of those beds may demand shortening the length of time a new parolee stays in a halfway house, said George Little, the Department of Corrections' director of community corrections. It could also mean finding alternatives for the low-level technical parole violators who, currently, can get sent back to a halfway house, Little said.

An earlier story is below:

State officials say a 2012 Pennsylvania law contributing to shrinking state inmate ranks is also fueling a growing parolee population.

Bret Bucklen, the Department of Corrections' director of planning, research and statistics, says courts are sentencing fewer defendants to prison. But he says the inmate population's also shrinking because of the law's limits on prison stays for parole violators.

Since 2012, the state prison population has dropped by 2,400 to just over 49,000. That's spurring a plan to close two state prisons. Over that same period, parolee ranks grew by more than 6,000 to nearly 32,000, as parole violators spent less time in prison.

Parole officials say they're getting better results with parolees. But Jason Bloom of the state corrections officers union says the state is gambling with public safety.

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