By State Senator Daylin Leach D-17th District
As we prepare to begin a new legislative session, most lawmakers are deciding what they plan to focus on and crafting bills to reflect those priorities. This year I will be working on issues such as income-inequality, reducing food waste, election reform and ending prohibition on cannabis. However, I will also be revisiting criminal-justice reform, an issue I’ve focused on for a long time.
We have a massive over-incarceration problem. The United States incarcerates more people per-capita than almost every other country in the world. And as a state, Pennsylvania incarcerates more people per-capita than everywhere except Texas. Between 1940 and 1980 we held steady within a range of 5,000-7,000 state prisoners. Then, in 1980 we embraced a new “tough on crime” philosophy. Pursuant to that, we dramatically and repeatedly increased sentences, adopted more and longer mandatory minimums, and made parole harder to get. As a result, we’ve seen our prison population balloon to more than 55,000.
This massive, almost tenfold increase in prisoners is extremely expensive. It costs Pennsylvanian taxpayers $40,000-$45,000 per year per prisoner. We’ve gone from five state prisons to 24, at an average cost of $300 million to build and $50 million per year, each, to run. And that is just the direct financial cost. This doesn’t count the lives destroyed, the jobs and careers lost, or the families devastated emotionally and financially by this mass incarceration. But the greatest tragedy is that none of this has made us statistically safer than we were before, or than people in other states that have taken a different approach.
In recent years, we’ve tried to address this in a responsible way. We passed “The Justice Reinvestment” Act which increased non-incarceration alternatives to addressing crime. My Co-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stewart Greenleaf and I agreed not to run any new mandatory minimums, which we largely stuck to. But there is a lot more to do.
I am introducing a bill to eliminate cash bail. Bail has become a way to warehouse poor people while wealthier people charged with the same crimes are free to await the disposition of their case at home. In some jails 65% of inmates haven’t even been convicted of any crime. They just can’t afford to pay bail. And places that have stopped doing this have the same rate of people showing up at trial as we do. I’m also trying to eliminate the felony murder doctrine, which subjects people who never killed anyone, or intended to kill anyone to mandatory life in prison. In addition, we need to stop incarcerating infirm octogenarians for crimes they committed many decades earlier, and perhaps most consequentially, we must start treating addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal character flaw.
Pennsylvanians want safe streets. Like everyone, I worry about the safety of my family. But being blindly and thoughtlessly draconian doesn’t actually make us more secure. It just diverts resources away from ideas that really would help, destroys lives and, in a cruel irony, creates more criminals as prison exposes relatively benign people to hardened criminals who do belong in prison. It’s time we adopt a smarter approach to crime which will benefit everybody.
Senator Daylin Leach represents the 17th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Montgomery County and Delaware County. He is also the Democratic Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee. For more information visit www.senatorleach.com/newsroom.