- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Legislation backed by Gov. Tom Wolf to save millions of dollars in Pennsylvania’s corrections system is about to get a hard look in the state House, where some lawmakers are warning the change could give prison officials too much authority over the parole system.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico said he scheduled a Monday hearing after House Republican leaders urged him to hold it as soon as possible. Top corrections and parole officials will testify, he said.

The bill passed the Senate last week, 37-10 and could form a piece of a five-months-late budget package that’s under negotiation between Wolf and state lawmakers.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said consolidating the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole would save millions of dollars by eliminating redundancies.

Those savings can then be spent to shore up the understaffed ranks of parole agents to help improve treatment outside of prisons and reduce Pennsylvania’s sky-high recidivism rate, Greenleaf said.

“They used to be able to go out in the neighborhoods and visit and have close contact with parolees,” Greenleaf said. But now, “they can barely just meet with them for a short period of time and they don’t have time to go out in the field to help them deal with issues that need to be dealt with.”

State data show parole agent caseloads and the number of parolees are steadily rising as policy changes, including a major 2012 law, have made it harder to send parolees back to prison for violating parole conditions.

The bill also would boost training requirements for parole agents.

Marsico, R-Dauphin, said he is concerned that corrections officials could get too much authority to decide who is paroled. He also wants to know how the $10 million in savings estimated by the Senate Appropriations Committee are achieved.

“Is it going to be because they’re going to let inmates out or because there’s going to be a reduction in the workforce?” Marsico questioned.

No corrections officers or parole agents would lose their jobs, Greenleaf’s office said.

A Judiciary Committee member, Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said he wants to ensure there is an independent reviewer of parole decisions, to prevent the Corrections Department from emptying prisons to save money, and that parole agents can do their jobs without interference from the department.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association also will seek changes to the bill.

Prosecutors are concerned the bill could affect the independence of parole agents, and it wants better management of halfway houses, said Greg Rowe, the association’s legislative liaison. Rowe cited reports of parolees absconding from halfway houses or using drugs there.

Halfway houses began playing a much bigger role in the parole system, prompted by the 2012 law, and now house several thousand parolees at about 50 centers. Most of them are privately run.

The bill, however, does not require that more parole agents are hired, nor would it set a standard to limit parole agent caseloads.

Paul J. Descano, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 92, which counts some parole agents as members, said combining the agencies poses a public safety risk. The state, Descano said, has already created the illusion of reducing its prison population by stopping parole agents from sending parole violators back to prison.

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