Reforming the Pennsylvania prison system may be one way to alleviate state spending, Sen. Jay Costa told a regional conference of Jewish prisons chaplains Sunday, Oct. 18.
“There are a couple of departments that historically and inevitably increase in cost … but there are some that I think are our own doing, and that troubles me,” Costa said at the Regional Jewish Prison Chaplains Conference held at the Aleph Institute in Squirrel Hill.
Coming off one of the most contentious budget deliberations in Pennsylvania history, Costa pointed to the continued growth in state funding for corrections each year, and said groups like Aleph that aim to reduce recidivism could be useful in alleviating costs.
The Department of Corrections budget is “a shade under $1.8 billion” this year, Costa said, making it the fastest growing department in the state budget.
Costa blamed a general philosophy for that increase.
“We have, in my opinion, a mentality that we want to lock them up and throw away the key, and that troubles me,” Costa said.
Costa, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and is the minority chair of the Appropriations Committee, said he tried to combat that growth in spending by stripping mandatory sentencing language from judicial legislation that passes his desk.
Costa said the state currently incarcerates around 51,000 inmates, up 1,600 over the past year, and that each prisoner costs the state around $40,000 annually. “My mind tells me that there are a lot better ways in which we can spend $40,000,” he said.
He also said the state is currently in the process of building three new correctional facilities at a cost of $200 million each and each with $50 million in operating costs.
He said the state should strive to keep people out of the prison system through programs like specialty courts, and community-level support services like the Aleph Institute.
The Aleph Institute, headed up locally by Executive Director Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, meets with prisoners and provides work and counseling for newly released inmates.
The Regional Jewish Prison Chaplains Conference offered Jewish chaplains around the region a rare opportunity to meet with state officials on issues specific to Jewish inmates.
The Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains Association, which includes chaplains of all faiths, usually meets in one conference, but because that conference took place during Jewish holidays this year, the Department of Corrections hosted a second conference to address concerns of Jewish chaplains from western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
The two-day conference allowed Jewish chaplains to meet with lawyers and officials from the Department of Corrections, to hold a roundtable on issues specific to Jewish inmates like kosher food, and to create an intimate setting to discuss sensitive topics like “Balancing Marriage and Chaplaincy” and handling sex offenders after release.
The Aleph Institute believes it can reduce recidivism by connecting with inmates on a spiritual level. Michael Berger, chair of the Aleph board, said when an inmate receives counseling from a religious person of their faith, recidivism drops 30 percentage points.
“That’s a tremendous savings. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. What matters is: as taxpayers, we have a dog in this fight,” Berger said.
The job of reforming prisoners falls to the nonprofit world because the government can’t afford rehabilitation on top of keeping prisoners safe, fed and housed, according to Rabbi Aaron Lipsker, who directs the Aleph Institute nationally from its Florida headquarters.
Lipsker said the Jewish world should strive to create universal solutions.
“We have to bring concepts that people can use under any circumstance,” he said.
Lipsker also echoed the connection between the work of nonprofits and public expense.
“The best thing for government is to let us do whatever we want, because it’s the cheapest and best move the government can make,” Lipsker said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)