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Wolf to keep GOP Corrections chief

| Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, 2:58 p.m.

Republican John Wetzel will stay on as secretary of the Department of Corrections under incoming Democratic governor Tom Wolf.

Wolf's announcement Monday was made as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett touted his administration's success under Wetzel in decreasing Pennsylvania's skyrocketing prison population.

The drop in prison population in 2014 “was the largest one-year drop in our population since 1971, and only the fourth time in the past 40 years that our population has shown an annual decrease, rather than an increase,'' said Bret Bucklen, Corrections' director of planning, research and statistics.

The state ended the calendar year with 50,756 inmates. Four years ago, the prison population was expected to top more than 56,000 inmates by the end of 2014.

Fewer inmates prevented “the cost of building more prisons, hiring more guards, paying other states to house our inmates when our prisons become overcrowded,” said Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg policy group that supported Corbett's “justice reinvestment” reforms.

The drop in inmates avoided approximately $69.9 million in costs in 2014 alone, and a total of $222 million during Corbett's four-year tenure, according to estimates from the department.

“All of this, it should be noted, is occurring while the crime rate continues to go down,'' Wetzel said.

Benefield said reforms did not include more lenient sentences, but rather increased efficiency within the system — such as releasing inmates as close as possible to the date they are paroled.

Wetzel instituted performance-based incentives for halfway houses contracted by the state, offering rewards to those who hold down recidivism and revoking the contracts of those who don't.

He developed guides and maps to community resources for inmates being released, started a housing voucher program to provide security deposits and rental aid for low-risk inmates, partnered with the Department of Labor and Industry to better prepare prisoners for the workforce upon release, and established structured mentoring programs through contracts with nonprofits and faith-based community organizations.

The success cannot be attributed to the Corbett reforms alone, Benefield said.

Specialty courts — established to handle only drunken-driving cases or veterans who become criminal defendants, for example — number more than 100 in 42 counties. These courts helped reduce the number of people sent to prison.

Wolf's retention of Wetzel highlights that prison reform has bipartisan support, said Benefield.

Wetzel won praise from Democrats and Republicans for his straightforward style. Recently he was appointed to a commission reviewing the federal prison system.

“He shares my view that we need to be tough on crime and put the rights of victims first, while protecting the taxpayers with smart reforms,” Wolf said.

Donald Gilliland is a Trib Total Media assistant metro editor.

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