Senator Fontana, along with Joe Lagana, Founder & CEO of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, accepts a proclamation from Allegheny County Councilman John DeFazio and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at July 10th’s County Council meeting. County Council presented the proclamation to Senator Fontana and Mr. Lagana to recognize Senator Fontana’s bill that creates the Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education. The bill, Senate Bill 157, was signed into law on July 5th.
Pennsylvania’s laws are designed to get tough on crime. However, there is no question that Pennsylvania’s large prison population is a result of these laws. This influx of new prisoners has proven to be quite costly on the state’s budget every year. In 1980, state prisons housed over 8,200 prisoners at an average cost of $11,400 each. By December 2011, the state corrections system held over 51,600 inmates at an average cost of $34,200. The recent explosive growth in the prison population underscores the need for change.
With over 27 corrections facilities statewide, Pennsylvania’s maximum prison capacity is 48,300 individuals, making the Commonwealth well over its capacity. In an effort to deal with over population, former Gov. Ed Rendell announced in 2010 that Pennsylvania would contract with Michigan and Virginia to move 2,000 low-risk inmates to facilities in those states. However, Governor Tom Corbett, by March 2012, declared that these individuals would be returned to the Commonwealth. In the meantime, our state has committed $600 million to build three new prisons by next year. Each facility will cost $50 million to operate, and each is expected to be full the day it opens.
Feeling that we must do something and quickly, in January, Governor Corbett, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille, and legislative leaders convened a bipartisan, inter-branch Justice Reinvestment Working Group to develop a policy framework to improve public safety, reduce recidivism and manage spending on corrections since this area remains one of the largest allocations in each year’s budget.
According to the PA Department of Corrections, nonviolent offenders make up nearly two-thirds of new commitments. When it comes to changes to the corrections system, one of the most important aspects must be to maintain public safety. Because so many of the individuals in the state corrections system are not a harm to society, these individuals were one of the main areas that the working group recommended making changes to, which would result in millions of dollars in savings.
On July 5th, Senate Bill 100 (SB 100) was signed into law, creating the Criminal Justice Reform Act (Act 122). This new law essentially reshapes Pennsylvania’s corrections system to give a second chance to nonviolent offenders and parole violators through a non-prison setting and reserves state prisons for only the most dangerous criminals.
In Pennsylvania, our corrections system locks up more people for longer periods of time, but fails to deter future crimes. What the working group has found is that punishment without rehabilitation is a failed policy. One of the biggest problems facing Pennsylvania’s prisons is recidivism, which is when inmates find themselves in trouble with the law again mostly because they are not given the right tools while serving time to be able to function in society. In fact, according to the Department of Corrections, nearly 44 percent of all inmates released from prison will return within three years.
Act 122 tackles this problem through a new comprehensive community re-entry program that helps inmates make the best of their skills in seeking employment once they leave prison. The program will be a collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Parole Board and will utilize community based organizations.
Furthermore, the Justice Reinvestment Working Group pointed out that halfway houses serve two very distinctly different types of people: parolees and pre-release inmates and has become an issue. Pre-release is something an inmate is eligible for near the end of their sentence as long as they meet certain guidelines. However, since they are still serving state sentences, these individuals are under more heavy and intense supervision and are only allowed to leave the facility for pre-approved employment or counseling not provided at the center. Parole violators have already served a complete sentence and though they are still supervised, they are given more freedoms than pre-released individuals.
It was recommended that these individuals be segregated to help prevent recidivism. Under Act 122, the law would phase out the state’s halfway houses for non-violent technical parole violators to be housed in reinvented secure community corrections centers or facilities, instead of prison. Caps would be placed on the length of incarceration for such individuals in these facilities to six months for first recommitment, nine months for second recommitment, or one-year for third or subsequent recommitment, subject to certain exceptions for poor behavior in prison. The Department of Corrections would also be allowed to enter into contracts with county jails to house technical parole violators who are recommitted as a cost saving mechanism.
Other changes that will take place under Act 122 to prevent non-violent people from serving long terms in our state corrections system are as follows:
- Expands the use, for non-violent offenders, of County and State Intermediate Punishment (CIP, SIP), State Motivational Boot Camps (BC), the Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive (RRRI) Program and the Create a Safe Community Reentry Program
- Allows for illegal immigrants convicted of nonviolent offenses to be paroled straight to immigration authorities for deportation, except for inmates who have been convicted of crimes of violence or crimes requiring registration under Megan’s Law. Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said this could save the state $1.5 million a year
- Have the state Sentencing Commission establish resentencing guidelines for revocation of probation and intermediate punishment, parole guidelines, and recommitment ranges following revocation of parole
- Alter the state’s current sanctioning process for probation violations in an attempt to offer more punishment options than imposing lengthy and costly prison terms
- Allow the Board of Probation and Parole to award time credits for convicted parole violators for time spent at liberty on parole, except in cases involving violent crimes, Megan’s Law crimes or individuals who have returned to this country illegally after having been deported prior to serving their minimum sentence for a prior crime
- County courts would be authorized to create a program to enforce probation violations by imposing swift, predictable, immediate and measured sanctions. The program would be modeled after the successful Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) initiative. Under HOPE, non-violent alcohol-and drug-addicted probationers are required to submit to random testing and those who fail receive swift punishment, which is usually a couple days in county jail and can ultimately be imprisoned for multiple failures. The swift and certain punishment has proven more effective in changing behavior than the current system, which can delay punishment for a probation violation for weeks or even months
- Allow the Board of Probation and Parole to use advanced communications technology in parole hearings in order to increase the agency’s productivity and reduce delays
- Prohibit inmates serving sentences for ungraded and third-degree misdemeanors from being sentenced to state prison, unless the Secretary of the Department of Corrections has consented to the commitment
The Criminal Justice Reform Act is expected to yield between $250 million and $300 million in savings during the next five years. The Justice Reinvestment Working Group has suggested that $86 million of that savings be reinvested back into local communities for improved law enforcement, public safety efforts and evidence-based treatment for these individuals. Unfortunately, one of the most important components of the whole reform – the mechanism for returning money to local jurisdictions – still awaits action in the Legislature. House Bill 135 (HB 135) has become the vehicle to invest this money, but became a victim of last-minute politics surrounding the budget and is expected to be negotiated during the fall by the General Assembly.
Act 122 represents a bipartisan solution to Pennsylvania’s corrections system. The bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. Other than senior services and care, there is no other area that consumes more state funding each year than our corrections system. This is the first step to real reform. Act 122 will generate savings and put the money back into enforcement so that our law and county corrections officials will have the resources and tools necessary to get crime off our streets but also make sure that first time offenders and parole violators do not return to prison, rather become working citizens again who give back to the community.
Homeless Children’s Task Force Becomes Law
Last week I was honored to stand before Allegheny County Council with Joe Lagana, the Founder and CEO of the Homeless Children's Education Fund, to accept a proclamation recognizing the passage of Senate Bill 157 (SB 157). SB 157, which became Act 123 on July 5th, is a bill I authored that will establish a task force to examine the educational needs of homeless children throughout the Commonwealth.
The Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education will study and assess the demographics of homeless parents and youth throughout the Commonwealth and the difficulties in providing educational services to homeless students while identifying successful strategies and best practices used in other states. Upon completion, the task force will issue a report and a set of recommendations that will allow the legislature to implement measures to provide education to homeless children.
I thank the County Executive, Rich Fitzgerald and County Council for issuing the proclamation and for recognizing and supporting the need to educate homeless children. Many in the community don’t realize the effect homelessness has on children and the challenges they face in receiving an education. There are 2,000 homeless students living in Allegheny County that we know of and probably another 2,000 that have not yet been identified. Across the Commonwealth, at least 30,000 children are homeless. The task force will help us better identify these children and provide a means to ensure they have the ability to receive an education.
I appreciate the work Joe Lagana and his staff at the Home Children’s Education Fund do to raise awareness of the crisis facing homeless children and for their efforts in advocating on these kids’ behalf and providing educational support. All children, regardless of their family’s financial situation, need to be provided educational opportunities. I look forward to the task force beginning their work so we can continue to address this crisis and work to ensure all children have access to a quality education.
Did You Know…
Did you know that one of every 45 children in the United States experience homelessness each year?
PHEAA TIP Program
As the Vice Chair of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), I want students to be aware of a new program being administered and funded by PHEAA. The Pennsylvania Targeted Industry Program (PA-TIP) provides need-based awards to students enrolled in courses of study in the energy, advanced materials and diversified manufacturing, and agriculture and food production fields. These are growing industries with an increasing demand for workers.
This program is being funded with $5 million from the agency’s business earnings without any taxpayer funds. Eligible students can receive a maximum award amount of either 75 percent of the allowable program costs or the maximum State Grant award, whichever is less, per award year. Awards can be used to cover educational costs and specific living expenses. Applications will be accepted by PHEAA beginning August 1st and will continue to be accepted until all funding for the program has been expended, but no later than April 1st, 2013. Students can apply for the PA-TIP program by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and a PA-TIP application available on PHEAA's website. To learn more about the program, please visit www.PHEAA.org or call 1-800-692-7392.
Transit Cuts Costly
Earlier this year, the Port Authority announced a 35% service cut to bus routes and put forth a plan that would institute these cuts beginning in early September. The Port Authority cites a $64 million deficit in its 2012-13 operating budget as the reason for these cuts. Negotiations continue between Allegheny County, the Governor’s office, PA Department of Transportation, the Port Authority and their employees in an effort to stave off these proposed cuts.
According to the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, the inability to close the $64 million deficit now will cost much more in the future. These costs include an increase of between $328 million to $405 million each year in commuting costs for transit riders and congestion costs for all drivers. Nearly 15,000 transit riders would lose their service and would spend an additional $60 million to $137 million on commuting. It is anticipated the service cuts would increase traffic congestion by 41 percent at a cost of $268 million per year. A sustainable solution is needed to continue mass transit in every community while preventing the subsequent increase in costs that would arise.
Department of Aging New Toll-Free Number
The Pennsylvania Department of Aging has a new toll-free number to help consumers with questions about long-term living and services for people with disabilities. The Link to Aging and Disability Resource Center line, 1-800-753-8827, is answered by trained customer service staff. The Center’s hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding holidays.
The toll-free number previously used for the former Long Term Living Helpline, 1-866-286-3636, will automatically connect callers to the new service. For more information on the Department of Aging’s programs and services, please visit www.aging.state.pa.us.
Historic Marker in Heidelberg
|Senator Fontana speaks at the Heidelberg Raceway & Sports Arena dedication ceremony on July 15th.
On July 15th, I participated in a ceremony in Heidelberg that commemorated the former Heidelberg Raceway and Sports Arena with the unveiling of an official State Historical Marker. Hundreds gathered to celebrate the Historical Marker and reminisce. The Heidelberg Raceway was originally constructed as a horse racing venue in 1948 but was converted into an auto racing track after the state did not legalize horse racing. Some of the biggest names in car racing, both locally and nationally, competed in Heidelberg over 25 years and what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series held some of its first races there. The venue also hosted many community events and festivals and on July 16, 1956, hosted the final Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus under the Big Top. Congratulations to Heidelberg Borough on your efforts to secure this Historical Marker from the PA Historical & Museum Commission and thanks to the local businesses and organizations that contributed financially!
Kiddie Pool Safety
With summer upon us, many of the season’s hot days are spent cooling off in the pool. Most are aware of the dangers children face when they enter a full-size pool but portable pools can be just as dangerous. The PA Division of the American Trauma Society reminds parents that children must be constantly supervised while in or near “kiddie pools.” One child in the United States drowns every five days in a “kiddie pool” during the summer months and more than 40 percent of drowning occurs in less than 18 inches of water, and while the child is being supervised. Parents are encouraged to use the LOCK, LOOK, and LEARN method of pool safety.
Lock up the pool area with a self-latching gate, or, for “kiddie pools” find a secure cover or empty the water. Look for and watch children in or near the water at all times. Learn to swim and provide swimming lessons for children from an early age. For more information on water safety, call the American Trauma Society, PA Division at 1-800-822-2358 or visit their website.
Sto-Rox Family Center Picnic
Join the Sto-Rox Family Center parent councils for a fun picnic with the parent leaders on July 26th. The picnic provides an opportunity to meet the staff and families enrolled in the center and to learn about the services offered at the Sto-Rox Family Center while enjoying good food, games and fun. The picnic will be held at the Sto-Rox Family Center, located at 295 Broadway Avenue in McKees Rocks, from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
The United States Board on Geographic Names issued a policy statement in 1890 that called for the “H” to be dropped in place names that ended in “burgh.” Pittsburghers voiced their objections to the Board’s decision and in 1911 the Board officially reversed its decision. From 1890 – 1911 the “H” was still present in all city ordinances and council minutes even though the U.S. Post Office had dropped the “H.”
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana