Pennsylvanians pay a high price for failed criminal justice policies
I recently joined FAMM as Pennsylvania State Policy Director because FAMM is building bridges. You don’t have to wear any one label to work with us for change. We welcome all.
FAMM is a nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies. We magnify the voices of real families affected by incarceration. We analyze the billion-dollar price tag on imprisonment that’s billed to Pennsylvania taxpayers.
The situation is bad in Pennsylvania. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the Northeast. Our prison population has exploded by 300% since the early 1980s, and we have the second highest number of people doing life sentences in the whole country.
Why do we have this dishonor? One big reason is that our laws haven’t reflected individual accountability. Individual accountability requires individualized sentences. Judges should look at the facts and circumstances of each case, since no two are the same.
At FAMM, we focus on ending one-size-fits-all harsh punishment. That system has resulted in half of adults in the United States experiencing incarceration in their families.
It wastes money, separates families, exacerbates racial disparities and deprives people who have paid their debt to society of every chance for redemption and mercy.
Individual accountability can look different at different ages. Call my parents if you don’t believe that I’m a different person now than when I was 19 and statistically much more likely to commit crime. People grow up. They change.
When that happens, our systems should allow second chances for those who’ve earned it. In the legal world, this means more opportunities for judges and the Pennsylvania Parole Board to review old sentences and see if incarceration still makes sense.
For example, incarceration makes no sense for many sick and elderly people — this demographic makes up at least a quarter of the prison population in our commonwealth, and the medical costs of caring for old and ill people is skyrocketing.
The annual cost just for prescription medications for state prisoners over 50 is $34 million, and we’re all paying for it.
Beyond the financial cost, there’s a human cost, too. Most seniors in prison were sentenced at a young age. They have served decades and pose no danger to our shared communities.
Families and taxpayers deserve a path to relief, and FAMM is working to get it for them. We support meaningful second chance laws to expand medical and geriatric parole opportunities.
I joined FAMM because FAMM cares about what happened in the past and what will happen in the future when 90% of all incarcerated people return to their communities. Shouldn’t they get the education, skills, treatment and care that they need to succeed?
In fact, shouldn’t everyone get that? I want it for my children, and yours. But in many Pennsylvania prisons, you can’t even get a GED, let alone take vocational or college classes.
FAMM gets disturbing reports every day about life behind bars: violence, inhumane living conditions, abuse, neglect, and lack of accountability from leadership have become too common.
We have nearly 40,000 people locked up in state prison cells in Pennsylvania right now. Each one represents a direct bill to taxpayers of around $57,000 annually. I joined FAMM because I pay taxes and the state prison system costs Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $2 billion dollars a year.
That $2 billion doesn’t even include the other related costs, like the income that employers and families lose to incarceration, or the impact on the Pennsylvania economy of losing 40,000 workers. Pennsylvanians must work together to fix this.
I joined FAMM because FAMM is building bridges. I don’t care where you live or what party you register with. Criminal justice reform is too important to be partisan. We need you. Contact me if you want to join FAMM and be a bridge.
Maria (MJ) Goellner is the Pennsylvania State Policy Director for FAMM, famm.org. She is a public interest attorney and lives in Erie with her family.