Examine prison system

Pennsylvania could use a study geared toward those who have gotten a break from the state’s criminal justice system over the past half-decade as part of the commonwealth’s effort to trim inmate populations at its correctional facilities.

Specifically, the study should tally, within the bounds of reason, the costs individual taxpayers, businesses and the state as a whole have borne as a result of recidivism by individuals who received leniency in the jail time that was meted out to them.

For people not familiar with the word “recidivism,” it’s defined by Webster’s Dictionary as a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, such as a relapse into criminal behavior.

For those who might be wondering what has spawned the study suggestion, it was information reported on Jan. 23 by the online news and information service Capitolwire — that for the fourth straight year there are fewer inmates in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

As reported by Capitolwire, state officials are pointing to the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives program implemented by former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 as continuing to have a positive impact on the inmate population, with the population declining 6.4 percent — or by 3,319 inmates — since June 2012.

The 2017 population of 48,438 was the lowest it’s been in a decade.

During the 10 years before JRI’s 2012 implementation, Pennsylvania’s inmate population had been growing by an average of 1,262 inmates per year.

The JRI goal is to cut the prison population through criminal justice reform and then directing the savings to helping counties enhance public safety, which is viewed as also helping to sustain lower population numbers.

But lower population numbers don’t provide any guarantees regarding the recidivism factor, and only through an examination of “criminal relapse” can a comprehensive picture of the prison population issue be provided to the public.

It’s the public which must endure and cope with the negative impacts emanating from recidivism.

This editorial is not aimed at triggering doubts about — or at criticizing — efforts to release some prisoners earlier, impose more moderate sentences, or allow some individuals who’ve committed lesser crimes not to serve behind bars any of the prison punishment that they deserve.

It’s true that some offenders — especially first-time offenders — will grasp the right lesson from a brush with the law, recognizing the damage it’s done to their lives, and never commit a crime again.

But that doesn’t happen all the time, as recidivism continues and, thus, remains a relevant concern.

Rather than criticize, this editorial seeks to promote a better understanding of the prison-population issue’s full scope and its cost to society.

Capitolwire quoted Gov. Tom Wolf as saying he’s pleased that his administration’s efforts and initiatives are “making a measurable difference in improving our prison population numbers.”

But he needs to acknowledge at the same time — and as emphatically — that prison-population numbers present only half of the total picture.

Knowledge of the picture’s other half — the amount and cost of recidivism, stacked against the cost of running the prison system — is of equal importance.

With the latest available prison population statistics in hand, the time is right for compiling and evaluating the rest of the picture for all to see.