As with many states around the nation, Pennsylvania is dealing with severe budget challenges and scrambling to find ways to cut costs and improve efficiencies. Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner has come up with one proposal which is raising some eyebrows, but may pay off in the end. He’s proposing a freeze on new prison construction and decreasing the inmate rolls.

This has led to some interesting headlines, such as, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General says it makes Fiscal Sense to let Prisoners Go. Another, simply titled, “Let them out” goes a bit further, seeking to indict the entire system as some sort of clandestine money making scheme by the government.

This is something reformers have been yelling about for years. Why put nonviolent offenders into an institution where not only does it cost more, you’re practically guaranteeing that they come out as hardened criminals?

It’s more than just the politics of law and order. Across the country, politicians and their cronies have invested heavily in the for-profit prison systems. The more people go to jail, the more money they make

Such a plan would clearly have many conservatives up in arms if they felt the rule of law was going out the window and murderers would soon be walking the streets freely just to save a few bucks. But as this article from the Philly.com points out, the plan’s author isn’t some far Left activist, and he’s not looking to just set huge numbers of the convicts free to cut costs.

Auditor General Jack Wagner is no wide-eyed leftist revolutionary. Sure, he’s a Democrat, but he also hails from Allegheny County and proudly wears the labels pro-life and pro-gun. Despite that conservative pedigree, Wagner called yesterday for something radical: a compete freeze on prison construction in Pennsylvania.

Wagner believes the state could save $50 million next year and $350 million over four years if more nonviolent offenders— who make up 39 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison population– were placed in programs that provide alternatives to incarceration.

Wagner is excluding the ranks of murderers, rapists and their ilk, as previous, sensible plans have done. And rather than some sort of catch and release scheme, he’s examining alternate options including half-way houses, electronic monitoring for home detention, and evening – weekend release programs (which free up beds) for the well behaved.

All of these have potential, and I hope he’s not too badly excoriated solely for political gain over this. But the one item which seems to have been left off the table is privatization. While such plans have hardly been problem free, some have shown a great deal of promise. Getting the prison system off the state government’s books entirely and turning it over to a for-profit organization which will be motivated to do the job in the most economically efficient manner possible should also be considered.

Either way, it’s another sign that states are going to have to tighten their belts or go the route that California and New York (to name just two) are taking. And that road leads to collapse.