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Celebrating Without Fireworks

Finally, a bit of sanity from Harrisburg

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Fireworks affect me the same way they do any other Pittsburgher. And beer affects me the same way it does any other human being. So chances are good that I'll be happy about the direction of our country on July 4, the day this issue comes out. 

But one of my biggest reasons for optimism — along with the steady march of gay rights and the newfound-if-likely-short-lived judicial restraint of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — has been taking place with almost no fireworks at all. In matters of criminal justice, Pennsylvania may actually be taking a step toward sanity.  

Senate Bill 100, which awaits Gov. Tom Corbett's signature as this issue goes to press, would allow more non-violent offenders to take advantage of alternative-sentencing programs and treatment, rather than being tossed into state penitentiaries. It would prevent cons from being sent back to prisons for purely technical parole violations. It would also provide additional resources to help convicts readjust to life outside prison. 

Nothing too revolutionary, perhaps. These are modest, sensible steps. But given our otherwise irrational crime policy, that's what makes them a big deal. After decades of media-driven hysteria and ever-stiffer mandatory sentences from pandering politicians, it's dizzying to hear a prominent Republican say, "Punishment without rehabilitation is a failed policy," adding that he hoped to "give former offenders a chance for a crime-free life." 

That Republican was state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a moderate from the Philly suburbs who sponsored the bill. But SB100 was backed unanimously by both parties in both Houses of the legislature — and supported by Corbett himself.   

"The linchpin was the governor," says Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsvylania. "The House especially can be a tough place to pass legislation, and the support of the administration was critical."

Hoover doesn't bestow such compliments lightly: He had doubts about Corbett coming in, and the ACLU continues fighting Corbett on issues like the "Voter ID" bill.  "When he was attorney general, he opposed every attempt at [prison] reform, and when he won the election, I was concerned by his track record," Hoover says. "But when he nominated [John] Wetzel as Secretary of Corrections, we knew this could be possible" because Wetzel, a former jail warden, had first-hand experience with re-entry programs.  

Of course, it's not as if Corbett suddenly woke up believing in the inherent goodness of human nature (except perhaps where natural-gas executives are concerned). A real motivating factor here, by all accounts, is cost: The state's prison population has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, and housing each of those inmates costs taxpayers well over $30,000 a year — $2 billion in all, once long-term costs like pensions for the guards are factored in. Similar concerns have driven sentencing overhauls even in law-and-order states like Texas. 

Anyway, prisoners trying to put their lives back together still face plenty of challenges. Among the biggest is the fact that, while opening some doors to prisoners, SB100 slammed another in their faces. The bill repealed the state's "pre-release" program, which allowed prisoners to serve the final year of their sentences in a halfway house. Though pre-release offers prisoners time to re-acclimate themselves to life on the outside, the program was shivved during deliberations. Hoover and other observers say it was a political deal to accommodate conservatives who were worried that cons might commit crimes in the final days of their sentence. Meanwhile, one of the worst culprits behind our skyrocketing prison population – mandatory sentences set by legislators rather than judges — remains at large. 

 "Getting rid of the mandatory minimums is a huge goal," Hoover says. "And I don't know if it's happening anytime soon."

But all that aside, "This is a very positive development," says Bill DeMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which has long advocated for sentencing reform. "It's too early to say if these tools will be used, but the tools are there." 

If that's not enough for you this Fourth of July, try a responsible amount of alcohol. And for those of us who've bemoaned the country's lock-'em-up idiocy for years, feel free to shout "I told you so" at your conservative uncle over burgers. That's what America is all about. 

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