Wetzel: Base prison reform on outcomes

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A self-proclaimed “data geek,” Wetzel is turning the results of several studies into policy aimed at reducing prison population, increasing public safety and successfully reintegrating former offenders back into their communities. Everything is geared toward improving outcomes. Anything that doesn’t is stopped. Anything that isn’t being done is initiated.

With respect to the former, he stopped the longstanding policy of shipping inmates to facilities as far away from home as possible when study data revealed that it increased recidivism because it made family visits and interaction nearly impossible. They came out with no bonds and no incentive. Now inmates are housed as close to home as possible.

He said he learned another lesson from data driven policy initiated in, to his surprise, Texas.

“They started spending money on drug treatment. Their prison population went down and so did their crime rate,” said Wetzel. “Well, 70 percent of our offenders are addicts and or have behavioral or mental health issues. I’ll bet you I have more mental health beds than the secretary of Welfare. So we did the same thing, and we’re seeing similar results.”

During the Milton Shapp administration in the 1970s, the state prison population grew by about 140 inmates per year, under Dick Thornburg it rose to 800 per year, then under Bob Casey it grew to 1,600 per year.  Under Tom Ridge, the population increase fell to about 1,400 and stayed there through the Rendell administration.

During two of the three years Wetzel has been secretary, there has been a decrease in the number of new inmates. The prison population overall has stayed roughly the same, however.

“Yeah the drop in intake is significant, but I want to see real reductions,” he said.

A lot of that involves sentencing and treatment changes. And those Wetzel can affect, he will.

“A lot of the people we get shouldn’t be coming to state prison. They would be much better served in another setting, have a better outcome and cost less money,” he said. “Isn’t that what we want?”

To that end Wetzel is part of a sentencing commission which is developing tools to help trial judges better assess both the risks and needs of individual offenders, so they end up with the best chance for success when released.

“On the back end, we discovered that our psychiatrists weren’t treating the correct inmates and more importantly that our half-way house contractors were ineffective. So we’ve rebid all those contracts,” he said. “Their money is now tied directly to results. If offenders succeed, you get a bonus. If they continue to fail, you get a year to fix it. If you don’t, you’re fired.”

On his watch, the state stopped construction of a Prison in Greene County. And though it did complete a new Prison in Fayette County, it closed two other prisons. It saved $23 million.

That directly affected more than 800 employees, so that was tough. All but three, though either took retirement or positions at other facilities,” said Wetzel. “And sure, it affected those communities. And it would if we closed SCI Pittsburgh–take away a $100-million entity anywhere, it will hurt.  But to use prisons as an economic development tool—especially when people come out worse—is insane.”

If the system improves outcomes, it will reduce the population, reduce crime and cost less money.  The last part may be tougher in the long run. Even though his $2 billion annual budget is a distant third behind education and welfare spending, and his population is decreasing, He’ll still need more money next year.

“Next year, I’ll see $51 million in pension increases alone. So I’ll need another $100 million just to maintain the status quo,” he said. “We can’t screw these guys who took less money years ago to get the benefit on the back end, but it’s a problem. There are some smart guys in Harrisburg. Hopefully they’ll figure something out.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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