Editorial, March 23, 2015
A lingering mystery of last year’s gubernatorial campaign is why former [Pennsylvania] Gov. Tom Corbett did not emphasize one of the most successful aspects of his administration — corrections reform.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who defeated Corbett, recognized the improvement. He kept on Corbett’s innovative and thoughtful corrections secretary, John Wetzel, to maintain the momentum towards a lower-cost system that better serves the needs of inmates and the society.
Last week Wetzel and John R. Tuttle, acting chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, testified at a budget hearing about needed improvements. The Legislature would be wise to listen. The state had projected its prison population to increase to more than 56,000 in 2014. Instead, Wetzel testified, it dropped by 908 inmates to 50,6756, the lowest population since June 2009, the largest one-year decrease since 1971 and only the fourth annual decrease in 40 years.
At the same time, critically, the state’s crime rate continued to decline, demonstrating that reduced incarceration was not accompanied by increased crime.
Further illustrating that was a decrease in recidivism, which results from a wide array of initiatives ranging from the simple to the complex. For example, Wetzel said the system now ensures that inmates leaving prison have state-issued identification cards to help them gain access to the services they need on the outside to help keep them out of trouble. And, he said, his department and the parole board have worked together to better prepare inmates about to leave prison, and with courts and mental health agencies to help steer exiting inmates to the services they need.
Wetzel and Tuttle asked the Legislature last week to take a major step to accelerate corrections systems improvements. They want to merge the two agencies. Doing so, they said, would provide offenders with just one set of rules rather than two as they leave prison, eliminate confusion over scheduling and streamline the parole process, consolidate some administrative functions to reduce costs and improve services for offenders to help reduce recidivism.
The Legislature has a good record in making some of the state’s mandatory sentencing laws less draconian to help reduce the prison population and its attendant costs. Members should continue that momentum by embracing Wetzel’s and Tuttle’s proposal.