By: SENATOR DAVID G. ARGALL

Special to The TIMES NEWS

Last week, Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner recommended a number of reforms in the Department of Corrections that could help save taxpayers up to $350 million over the next four years. Many of these reforms, such as the increased use of alternative-sentencing programs and intermediate punishment programs, were cited last year in the Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission's report to the General Assembly. As Chairman of this Commission, I am very thankful that Auditor General Wagner has offered his support for these prison reform measures, and I am hopeful we can work together in a bipartisan effort to enact these reforms to reduce one of the state's largest expenses.

It costs the state approximately $40,000 per year for each inmate in state prisons and roughly $18,000 for prisoners in county prisons. However, it costs just $1,250 per year to monitor prisoners released on probation and approximately $2,750 per year for prisoners who are released on parole. It is clear that the state could realize significant savings by reducing the number of low-risk non-violent offenders in state prisons and helping to reduce recidivism among current prisoners. Many Corrections Department employees reside in the Senate district which I represent and they have frequently told me that our budget cutting efforts this year should focus on possible common-sense savings within their Department.

The General Assembly laid the groundwork to enact a number of these reforms last year. Act 95 of 2010 ordered the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to adopt a risk assessment instrument for use by judges in sentencing criminal offenders. This tool will help determine the relative risk that an offender will present a threat to public safety, allowing low-risk non-violent offenders to participate in less costly treatment programs and parole and probation supervision programs while keeping dangerous, violent criminals behind bars. The new law also created a graduated sanctioning system for parole violators to ensure that some of the most innocuous technical parole and probation violations, such as breaking a curfew or missing a scheduled meeting with a parole agent, do not place a significant and undue burden on taxpayers by keeping non-violent individuals locked up in state prisons.

The state will spend more than $1.7 billion on the Department of Corrections this year, and without necessary reforms, these costs will continue to spiral out of control. As the state faces a budget deficit of up to $4 billion in the coming year, I am hopeful that the General Assembly can work toward these reforms to reduce this burden on taxpayers without compromising public safety.

In my frequent town hall meetings across the 6-county district which I represent, from Pine Grove to the Poconos, the message to me is very clear: We need to do a better job of controlling the costs of state government. The Department of Corrections is not the only agency which must tighten its belt during these difficult economic times, but as one of our largest state agencies, its ever-growing budget must receive special attention by the House, the Senate, and by our new Governor.