Even as the crime rate in Pennsylvania continues to drop, the number of incarcerated citizens continues to rise. John Wetzel, secretary of corrections for Pennsylvania presented “A 21st Century Penitentiary Model” on February 19 to a rapt audience in the East Parlor to explain this paradox and his goals for turning this situation around.
“His reputation as a progressive reformer and vision for the future of corrections ties in perfectly with our belief in service to the dear neighbor,” said Wolfgang Natter, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, in presenting Wetzel.
“The use of incarceration as a response to crime was thought to be a way to rehabilitate someone,” Wetzel began. “Even the word, ‘penitentiary’ got its start here, in Philadelphia. Being ‘penitent’ and locked up, solitary, was how we thought crime would be solved.”
He quoted startling statistics that show that belief was wrong. “Thirty years ago Pennsylvania had about 8,000 inmates,” he said. “We have about 50,000 now.”
Pennsylvania actually has closer to 51,000 prisoners in six state correctional institutions and 60 halfway houses; about 40,000 former inmates are on parole. On the county level, the jails have a daily population of about 40,000 inmates with about 60,000 to 80,000 on parole.
“We have a fundamentally flawed approach to responding to crime, when one of every 212 Pennsylvanians is in prison; one of every 64 black Pennsylvanians is in prison; and one of every 32 black men is in state prison,” he said.
Why? He suggests it is because the response to crime has been more severe than the crimes would indicate. And this problem doesn’t exist solely in Pennsylvania; the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the incarcerated population in the world.
The approach to crime was toughened partly through the “war on drugs,” in which law enforcement agencies increased arrests of drug dealers, requiring many new prisons to be built, while ignoring the demand. “Seventy percent of our 51,000 inmates are addicts [who are not treated],” Wetzel said. “When they get out, you just have an older, angrier addict.”
He said overly prescriptive, mandatory sentencing structures add to the problem of increasing prison populations.
The increase in life and life-without-parole sentences also is part of the problem, in his opinion. “We currently have 5,100 inmates who will die in prison, with almost no chance to get out,” he said.
And yet, under his direction—Wetzel was appointed by former Governor Tom Corbett—Pennsylvania has experienced a reduction in inmates of about 1,100 since 2012. Current Governor Tom Wolf retained Wetzel because of their shared belief “that we need to be tough on crime and put the rights of the victims first, while protecting the taxpayers with smart reforms that reduce non-violent prison sentences and ensure inmates gain skills to become productive members of society.”
Wetzel has established programs to work with violent offenders with the goal of ensuring they leave the system less likely to commit future crimes. These programs include providing help for mentally ill individuals; offering rehabilitation services to addicts; and keeping prisoners connected to their families as much as possible.
“In 1995, the policy was to send prisoners as far away from their family as possible,” he said. “But it’s shown that those less likely to recidivate are those who get visits from family members within a year before they get out.”
Detailed information about Wetzel’s reforms can be found on the Department of Corrections website, http://www.cor.pa.gov/
“There has to be accountability in society [for one’s actions],” he said. “However, we don’t want that process of accountability to make them more likely to commit another crime. Incarceration is important, but shouldn’t be the only response to crime, and we have to be sure that the punishment fits the crime.”
At the end of the presentation, a student asked Wetzel if Pennsylvania does anything in the field of restorative justice. He told the young woman that he thought it was “cool” that CHC students understand what that is and have classes about it, and answered:
“Yes, we do. We have mediation if the crime victim is willing; we have a day of responsibility in prisons in which outsiders talk about the impact of crime; our inmates to at least ten hours per week of community service, totaling more than 200,000 last year; and we’re engaged with community partners to help rehabilitate offenders.
“Restorative justice is a trend nationally, especially in the juvenile system. I would love to see it increase at the adult level,” he added.
-- Brenda Lange