Statewide Program Aims To Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Recidivism

Jan 6, 2016

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is looking for counties willing to house people serving short sentences, rather than sending them to state prison. Allegheny County officials have not said whether they will apply.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has announced a program aimed at keeping people serving short sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

The department is offering up to $1.5 million to assist participating counties with programs for housing and rehabilitating “short min” inmates.

“We define short mins as someone who walks in one of our prisons and has a year or less to go until their minimum sentence date,” said Bret Bucklen, Director of Planning, Research and Statistics with the DOC. “The minimum sentence date is the minimum amount of time that they have to spend in prison before they can be eligible for release onto parole.”

Bucklen said most of these people are serving time for drug-related charges and property crimes. In the past, many of them would have served their entire sentences at county jails, but a 2011 law mandated judges send such offenders to state prisons in order to reduce overcrowding at the local level. 

Bucklen said short mins now make up about one-third of annual admissions to state prisons, and in many cases, these people would be better served in county jails.

“Keeping offenders closer to home will help them stay connected to their families, stay connected to the community and generate better outcomes,” Bucklen said.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a 2011 Minnesota study found that visits from loved ones can reduce recidivism rates by up to 13 percent.

Bucklen said state prisons also just aren’t set up to house short min offenders. It takes about three months for the state prison system to fully evaluate each inmate’s unique situation and develop a plan of treatment and rehabilitation. And inmates don’t always start drug rehabilitation or vocational training programs right away once the evaluation is complete; often they are placed on waiting lists.

Bucklen said the result is that many people remain in state prison even after they are eligible for parole, because they haven’t completed the necessary treatment programs.

He said the DOC will choose three or more counties to participate in the 12-month program based on the creativity and impact of their proposals.

Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said the county is still considering whether it will apply for the program. Downs did not immediately provide information about how many short min inmates make their way from the local county jail to state prisons each year.

90.5 WESA fellow Mora McLaughlin contributed to this story.