From PennLive: Pa. House approves bill to aid state inmates’ re-entry into society

Read the original story on

By Jan Murphy | [email protected]

Legislation that would help to ease state inmates’ transition into society and give them an opportunity to get out sooner, won passage in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

One bill would require the state to assist inmates in obtaining identification before leaving prison and another would allow inmates to earn vocational and education credits to make them eligible for parole sooner.

Both bills – which require similar practices that the Department of Corrections already provides – will now go the Senate for consideration.

bill, sponsored by Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny County, would require the DOC to work with other state agencies to provide eligible inmates with birth certificates, Social Security cards, driver’s license, or if their license is suspended, photo identification cards at no cost prior to their release.

The department, which supports the bill, would be required to produce an annual report on inmates released with the documents and those without them along with a reason why. It passed on a 102-99 party-line vote.

Providing these documents prior to release “will help them get back on their feet and avoid recidivism,” Kinkead said. “Nationwide, around 10,000 people are released from incarceration every month and the first few weeks following release are critical when it comes to determining the success of re-entry. A small piece of plastic stands between these individuals and the basic necessities like housing, employment, medical care, banking and so much more.”

Rep. Stephenie Scialabba, R-Butler County, argued against the bill raising concerns about the department having to provide identification to a non-citizens, putting taxpayers on the hook to provide photo identification regardless of how many times an inmate is incarcerated, and its failure to require an individual who obtains free ID to “stay and benefit the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin County, argued against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, saying the corrections department already has a program that aids inmates in getting documents before they leave using non-tax revenue to pay for it. The funding instead comes from the Inmate General Welfare Fund that generates money from sales in the commissary, hobby craft functions and private donations, among other sources.

The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-Montgomery County, would allow inmates to earn up to 180 days of credit to reduce their sentence by participating and completing a vocational training or educational program. It passed by a 152-49 vote.

It includes provisions limiting the amount of credit earned from exceeding one-fourth of a minimum sentence, as well as bars inmates convicted of certain offenses from being eligible to earn credit including murder, rape and human trafficking among others.

“When we think about returning neighbors and residents, it is incentivizing them,” Nelson said. ” Vocational training credentials will only benefit our communities in innumerable ways. This bill restores vibrancy of families and neighborhoods, helps to reduce our incarcerated population and it gives thousands of Pennsylvanians the momentum they need for their second chances.”

Research shows that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not, and that every dollar spent on prison education saves four to five dollars on the costs of re-incarceration, according to a 2023 U.S. Department of Justice report.

If enacted, Pennsylvania would join 35 states that allow inmates to earn credit to reduce their sentences if they participate and complete a rehabilitative programming, said Shaena Fazal, chief of state advocacy for the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which lobbied for the bill.

Currently, Pennsylvania has a program similar to the one being proposed. It provides an opportunity for a reduced sentence but is more limited in scope. It is only offered to inmates when directed by the court and is applied to less violent offenders, particularly to those with substance abuse problems, to encourage them to seek treatment. The corrections department supports the bill but its spokeswoman Maria Bivens said it would require the department to make some operational changes to implement it.

“It’s a smart correctional tool not just for recidivism on the outside but also for safety of the facilities on the inside” for inmates and correctional staff, Fazal said.