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State Corrections boss Wetzel wants fewer prisoners

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

HARRISBURG — John Wetzel oversees a state prison system with more than 50,000 inmates, larger than the population of Wilkes-Barre.

With 16,200 employees at 26 prisons, a boot camp, and 14 state-run halfway houses, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spends more than $2 billion a year — a cost to taxpayers of $34,700 per inmate.

Wetzel, the secretary of Corrections, says the state spends far more than it should on prisons, though changes have curbed some spikes in corrections costs. The budget is up marginally from $1.95 billion in 2012-13.

“We've flattened out the growth,” said Wetzel, 44.

A bear of a man who once played semi-pro football and starred as a lineman at Bloomsburg State University, he is committed to reducing those costs by tackling a fundamental problem bedeviling prison administrators for decades: recidivism.

The stark fact is that six of every 10 inmates are reincarcerated or rearrested, according to an agency report released in February. That has remained unchanged for at least 10 years.

Approximately 10 percent of police arrests involve released state inmates, the report said. Wetzel, the former Franklin County prison warden who coached linemen at Shippensburg State University, says the rate is unacceptable.

He's going about his job, he says, in a nonpartisan way. Partisan politics annoys him.

“Republicans and Democrats have taken turns screwing up corrections,” says Wetzel, who began working as a corrections officer in Lebanon County in a part-time job during college. He thinks his boss, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, has a better grip on corrections needs than any other recent governor because he was state attorney general and chaired the Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Yet, Wetzel suffered the wrath of Republican lawmakers in January for his handling of the announcement of prison closings in Greensburg and Cresson.

The announcement was made “without any warning to its corrections officers, their families or those communities,” said Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. “How did many of the officers in those prisons learn of the closings? From inmates.

“Just one hour before the state made its official announcement, the state finally saw fit to notify the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents 600 employees in both prisons,” Bloom said.

The January announcement angered lawmakers. Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, accused the Corbett administration of secretly making the decision and deliberately not telling Westmoreland County lawmakers so they would not scuttle the plan.

“The secretary has stated many times the announcement didn't proceed as planned,” Wetzel's spokeswoman Sue Bensinger said. “He regrets deeply the effect the announcement had on staff at both Cresson and Greensburg.”

Prison employees “were offered viable employment following the closings,” she said.

Among recently enacted reforms is treating nonviolent, addicted offenders at the local level.

Wetzel worked with Republican and Democratic policymakers to push through reforms such as making sure nonviolent inmates eligible for early release get released.

Keeping inmates beyond minimum release dates, when they are eligible for parole, created backlogs. It cost state taxpayers $49 million in housing costs to keep inmates convicted of misdemeanors and minor felonies beyond release dates, said a study by the Council of State Government's Justice Center.

To reduce recidivism, Wetzel is offering incentives — or penalties — to halfway houses with programs to keep inmates from returning.

There are about 50 vendor-run Community Corrections Centers. It's one of the first such programs in the country, Bensinger said.

Corrections officials will review quarterly to measure whether a vendor has hit performance targets. If not, she said, they'll receive a warning. If noncompliance continues for a second quarter, the state may assess penalties. Exceeding performance targets leads to a bonus, Bensinger said.

At a minimum, contractors' recidivism rate cannot increase.

It's too early for any figures to determine whether the idea is working, she said.

Wetzel gets praise for his reforms from Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, who says his ideas are “some of the most unsung accomplishments of the Corbett administration.”

“John's passion, his focus, and his driven yet congenial personality allowed him to lead a diverse group of folks to accomplish big things,” Brouillette said. “He has shown us that you can be both tough on crime and smart on crime.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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