When Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives forced Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel to appear before them for the annual round of grandstanding about prison costs, Wetzel turned the tables and placed the blame where it belongs: on the legislature.
Wetzel and chairman of the Board of Probation and Parole Michael Potteiger were called on February 12, 2014, to sit in the hot seat at a budget hearing that had little substance pertinent to the actual budget.
Each year Wetzel is compelled to explain prison policy during budget hearings, “and then they forget about it until next year when they want to scold me about the budget,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats have both taken their turns screwing with the system.”
Rather than focus upon the $2.24 billion budget for the state’s two correction agencies, legislators focused upon their pet perceptions, state prisons, said one state representative, should find a job for every prisoner before releasing him.
Two representatives demonstrated how out-of-touch they are with prison policy. One of them was unaware that legislation she voted to approve 18 months ago restricted the state’s community corrections centers to parolees. The other inquired about a parole moratorium that ended over five years ago.
The elephant in the room was a prison population increase that pushed the prison system to seek more funding. Wetzel suggested two goals for prison policies: the response should equal the crime and the response should yield results. That would result in prisoners being less likely to commit crime upon release.
“You can’t say that about some of our current laws and policies,” said Wetzel. “No less than 23 bills have passed the House, every one of which has the potential to increase prison populations.”
“You pass the bills,” he said. “Don’t be surprised when the budget goes up.”
Over the last three years, Pennsylvania’s prison population has grown by only 328 prisoners, which is down from the expected 3,652 over that period. Wetzel attributed that to his administration changing the way it does business.
He echoed his research director by saying the legislature’s bills that increase the prison population without acting to invest in rehabilitative programs is “death by a thousand paper cuts.”
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