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Editorial: America, PA take steps with prison reform | TribLIVE.com
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Editorial: America, PA take steps with prison reform

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Michael Coghlan

There comes a time when you accept that what you’re doing isn’t working.

When you reach that acceptance, you have choices. You can give up. You can keep going anyway. Or you can try something new.

Our prison systems have reached that point.

The number of people behind bars in America has reached staggering proportions, with about 2.3 million locked up. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, we have almost 7,000 prisons when you count federal, state, juvenile and local institutions, not to mention psychiatric, military and immigration facilities.

To put that in perspective, that is equal to the entire population of West Virginia, plus Pittsburgh, plus most of Westmoreland County. America has more prisons than Walmarts.

So it makes sense that this is an issue that received bipartisan support in Washington as lawmakers from both sides passed a criminal justice reform bill that gives that chance to try a new way to address an old issue. The measure, pushed and backed by presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, is on track to be the first such bridge-building example of policymaking under Donald Trump’s leadership.

The reform would address the mandatory minimums for drug crimes where no one is hurt. It would give judges the ability to look at offenses in context, rather than through a matrix of demands. It would allow the legal system to be more Solomon and less rubber stamp.

Pennsylvania is positioned as a leader on the issue. John Wetzel has been Secretary of Corrections through both a Republican and a Democratic governor and been a champion of reform, overseeing decreases in the state’s prison population that included closing SCI-Pittsburgh in 2017.

“Pennsylvania has taken a bipartisan, collaborative approach to criminal justice reform,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a Washington Post panel earlier this month. “The goal is to get people out of our prisons and back into being productive members of their communities and our state…”

Today there are just under 50,000 inmates throughout Pennsylvania’s various institutions. The average age is 39. The average sentence is 7.6 to 17.2 years, not counting the 5,432 lifers or 144 inmates on death row. According to the Department of Corrections, 33 percent of inmates are serving a sentence for a classification of offense that could include the kind of drug crimes noted in the reform.

The legislation is a good start, but we have to make sure that it isn’t just an open door where people are pushed out into the world and authorities dust off their hands, congratulating themselves on a job well done. Passing a law, after all, is only half the job. Implementing it, and making sure it works the way it was intended, is where many good laws fall down.

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