There will be a lot of bickering about Gov. Ed Rendell's latest budget proposal in the months ahead. You can bet that Republican lawmakers will be paying special attention to Rendell's proposed 5.9 percent increase in the budget for educating Pennsylvania's children.
Far less controversial, meanwhile, will be the budget that includes tossing kids in prison for the rest of their lives.
The governor is seeking nearly $1.7 billion to house the state's prison population next year -- a 17.5 percent increase since 2006-07. That's more than twice the rate of increase for the budget as a whole. Among other things, the new money will cover the construction of another 690 prison beds, which will offer a little breathing room to a prison population carrying 5,000 more prisoners than it was designed to hold.
Say this for the Department of Corrections: At least they're building one part of the state people are crowding to get into. In less than a decade, the state's prison population has jumped to 46,000 people -- an increase of 28 percent. (The prison population grew by more than 1,600 people in the last year alone ... more than twice the number of beds Rendell hopes to add next year.) The number of Pennsylvanians living outside the razor wire, meanwhile, has increased by only 1.2 percent in roughly the same period of time, according to the US Census Bureau.
One small, but disturbing, part of the problem is the number of inmates who are serving life in prison with no hope of parole … for crimes they committed as minors.
This week, even as legislators were digesting Rendell's budget, the New York Times editorial page deemed Pennsylvania "the worst offender" in the nation when it comes to shutting away juvenile offenders for life. We are one of 38 states that sentence juveniles to life in prison with no possibility of parole ... a sentence that almost no other civilized country in the world hands out to its minors. "Hundreds of inmates -- estimates range from 360 to 433 -- have no hope of ever being released [from Pennsylvania prisons] because of crimes they committed between the ages of 13 and 18," the Times observes.
(Perhaps the editorial's saddest statement is that, apparently, no one is sure exactly how many kids are rotting away in state prison cells. Not only do these offenders not count; they aren't even being counted.)
To the governor's credit, Rendell's budget does make a pitch for more funding on drug treatment, more post-prison support and other programs to reduce the prison population. Such programs, the governor estimates, could save $19 million over the next four years. But I'm not optimistic that the legislature will embrace these ideas, or give up on locking away kids forever: After all, Harrisburg has finally found a way to keep the young people from leaving.
I love Mel Packer!