State Corrections boss Wetzel wants fewer prisoners |

State Corrections boss Wetzel wants fewer prisoners

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 [email protected].

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.