A Senate panel approved a bill Monday that would make closing a Pennsylvania prison harder, in an attempt to preserve the jobs such institutions create.
The bill would preclude a governor from fully or partially closing a prison — or a state police barracks — without first conducting a year-long public study and a hearing schedule so as not to “cause panic throughout our local communities, and most importantly to our affected workers and their families,” according to a legislative memo written by the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuykill.
But state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the bill could cause the very same panic the bill hopes to avoid if it becomes law.
The decision to close a prison or a wing of a prison is a stressful and difficult task for the administration and employees, Wetzel said, and dragging it out would make things worse. In addition, he said, an administration could be forced to make annual closure announcements, putting stress on 500 employees in each facility.
“You’d have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads for a year,” Wetzel said.
Full Senate and House votes are needed for the bill to become law.
The bill says a governor must give 12 months written notice a closure is being “reasonably proposed.” That notice must be sent to nine executive branch agencies, Senate and House leaders, every affected union and every local, state and federal elected official near the facility.
Additionally, the executive branch would have to hold at least one public hearing on any impacts on safety, workers’ and regional economies, and on whether the building could be reused for another purpose. The governor could override the lengthy process for immediate health or safety concerns.
Argall said prison closings may be coming, and the bill ensures a more orderly process for them. “We’ve had some bad experiences with prison closures in the past,” he said.
Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said six months is a more reasonable time frame.
In 2012, then-GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, with Wetzel as his Corrections chief, began to take steps to reduce taxpayer and societal costs associated with the state’s criminal justice system. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who retained Wetzel, continued those plans, which were aided by federal and state court decisions that found mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug crimes to be illegal.
The administrative reforms and court rulings have helped the state cut the inmate population by 4.2 percent, shelve plans for a new prison, close two older institutions, and partially merge two state agencies.
After the Appropriations Committee adopted Argall’s bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a meeting to approve several bills aimed at reducing the state’s costs further and possibly lead to future prison closures.
Senate Bill 1071 anticipates the state saving several million dollars by reducing the state prison sentences of some non-violent offenders, excluding those convicted of assault, robbery or other physical crime.
The shorter sentences would require the state corrections system to follow county prison systems by releasing eligible inmates as soon as they hit the mandatory minimum sentence. On average, the state holds inmate four months longer than counties.