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Treatment vs. punishment keys Pennsy prison debate

February 27, 2004

Lock 'em up and throw away the key? Most Pennsylvania residents would support doing that for most people convicted of a crime.

But State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard this week said that the state spends millions more than is necessary to deal with thousands of nonviolent offenders.

Beard wants treatment programs to replace incarceration for many. But we'd like to see a program with real sanctions for those who don't take its offer of substance-abuse treatment seriously.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary Beard said that even after factoring in the cost of treatment, the transfer of 1,500 inmates from prison to treatment would save $40 million per year.

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A bill to create such a transfer program has been introduced by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who noted that 70 percent of those entering prison have a problem with alcohol or drug abuse.

Since 1990, Pennsylvania has doubled the number of inmates serving time in its state prisons to nearly 41,000. And according to Secretary Beard, the average stay of 5 1/2 years is double the national average.

Prison officials said the inmate population surge is being fueled by an influx of nonviolent drug offenders. Greenleaf's bill would target them for treatment, excluding those with a violent criminal past, or those who used a weapon while committing a crime.

Would it work? Many well-meaning alternatives have been developed that led nowhere. The introduction of methadone, after all, was supposed to end heroin addiction, but now has become an abused drug in its own rite.

The key to the success or failure may be found in Beard's statement that the length of a prison term means less to most inmates that the certainty of punishment.

If that's true, then the provision of Greenleaf's bill that would send an inmate back to prison for violating a drug test must be mandatory, not discretionary.

Ex-offenders who get help for this program need to know for certain that if they don't take it seriously, the state will reluctantly send them back to prison to do their full sentences.

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