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Pennsylvania Sees 4th Year Of Falling State Prison Numbers

Marc Levy


UPDATED: 6:08 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018

The number of inmates in Pennsylvania's prison system is continuing to decline, with the population last year falling by about 860 prisoners to fewer than 48,500.

The Wolf administration said Monday the 2017 drop represents the fourth straight year that the total inmate population has gone down. Administration officials call last year's decrease the largest on record.

Pennsylvania ended last year with about 3,300 fewer inmates than five years earlier.

Officials say significant factors include dropping crime rates, diversions of technical parole violators and a state Supreme Court decision that threw out many of the state's mandatory minimum sentences.

These kinds of changes save the commonwealth money without compromising public safety, said Bret Bucklen, director of planning, research and statistics at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He said prison is a “criminogenic” environment that can lead to more danger.

“You have a certain number of lower-level offenders or first-time offenders or nonviolent offenders who go to state prison, and they come out worse than when they came in,” Bucklen said.

Spending less on prisons, he said, frees up resources for policing, substance abuse treatment and victim services.

These developments put Pennsylvania in line with national efforts to reduce incarceration.

“The pendulum swung too much,” he said. “We put a certain number of people in prison that don’t belong in prison or belong in prison for a shorter period of time and can be better treated and rehabilitated in the community or safely handled in the community.”

The dropping prison population prompted the Wolf administration to close Pittsburgh State Prison last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.