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Pa. spends over $40k a year per inmate. Yes, that's a lot.

Written by Joel Shannon/The York Daily Record | Sep 22, 2017 2:43 PM
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FILE PHOTO: A solitary corrections officer looks out from a tower at one corner of the state prison in Camp Hill.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(Undated) -- Few states spend as much per inmate as Pennsylvania, according to a 2017 report. But an author of the study and a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections agree: That's not the full story.

In 2015, Pennsylvania spent $42,727 a year per inmate according to data gathered by the Vera Institute of Justice for their May 2017 report "The Price of Prisons."

The study included survey data from 45 states. Only 10 of the included states spent more per inmate.

When prison costs are distributed per resident in Pennsylvania, it's similarly high. Residents pay an average of $168 per year on state prisons, the 9th highest in the nation according to Vera's data.

But study co-author Chris Mai hopes readers of the report dig deeper.

Why so high? It's all about the jobs.

Mai discouraged readers from taking state rankings at face value. 

Often looking at the cost per inmate tells you more about the labor costs in a state than anything else, Mai said. The personnel cost of running a prison system is usually the primary driver of expenses, and that's true in Pennsylvania.

Citing union agreements, Bret Bucklen -- Pennsylvania Department of Correction's director of Research and Planning -- said the state's labor costs are unusually high. 

 "The unions have been able to negotiate pretty good salaries. That definitely is a cost driver," he said.

Caring for the state's prison population, which Bucklen says currently sits at nearly 49,000, or roughly the size of the city of Harrisburg -- That's a labor-intensive job.

Mai suggested comparing a state to itself over time is a better way to evaluate.

As it turns out, that's problematic in Pennsylvania too.

Increasing costs: 'We can't control that'

No state in the nation saw its prison system's spending increase more between 2010 and 2015 than Pennsylvania: Costs rose 22 percent here during that period.

But, again, Mai and Bucklen agree: There's a good reason.

Bucklen cited two primary expense drivers that he said were beyond the department's control: a costly lawsuit and rising pension costs.

The lawsuit, which Bucklen said targeted Pennsylvania's treatment of mentally ill inmates, resulted in a settlement requiring costly upgrades to the state's prison system.

Additionally, the impact of pensions was addressed in a explanatory note in the report. It cited a "dramatic increase in the amount that state employers were required to contribute to employee pensions" in Pennsylvania.

Bucklen said keeping up with increasing pension and salary obligations can cost an extra $100 million per year: "We can't control that," he said.

But Bucklen said the department has worked to manage the expenses they can control. 

They've closed three prisons. They've worked to reduce costly overtime. And, while they've decided against layoffs, they have used attrition to reduce the size of their workforce.

Here's the path to spending less on prisons

To reduce spending on prisons, you have to reduce the prison workforce.

To safely reduce the prison workforce, you have to have less prisoners. 

That's one of the main takeaways Mai hopes readers will get from the report. But the path to reducing prison populations isn't simple.

It is, however, already happening here in Pennsylvania, according to Bucklen.

Although the Vera report said Pennsylvania's prison population was "largely flat" between 2010 and 2015, Bucklen cited data showing a 6-percent decrease in Pennsylvania's prison population since its peak in 2012.

He attributes that decrease to better-funded probation programs designed to keep people from entering the state system, parole reform that cut sentences for violators and court decisions that reduced or eliminated many mandatory minimum sentences.

That's in line with what Mai is seeing at the national level.

She says the report contradicts a common belief that the cost of prisons is out of control. 

Instead, she sees evidence that states around the nation are making progress reducing their prison populations and saving taxpayer money.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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