Gov’s Signature to Complete Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Structural prison reforms are already being put into place, designed to produce better outcomes and save the state up to $350-million dollars over five years.  That was the first half of the Justice Reinvestment initiative (SB 100), which was signed into law in July. 

Like the first bill, the second piece of the Justice Reinvestment effort (HB 135) has cleared the General Assembly with bipartisan support.  It will reinvest a portion of the prison system savings into the front lines of the justice system, like local law enforcement and county probation & parole departments. 

“An effective probation system can lower recidivism among people on probation and can also manage growth in your prison system because of more effective management of offenders,” explains Marc Pelka, program director with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. 

The CSG Justice Center has worked with 16-states on Justice Reinvestment, and Pelka says each strategy is tailored to the issues driving growth in those states prison systems.  “So although the individual policies are different for each particular state, the overall outcome is reduced spending on corrections and reinvestment in areas that increase public safety.” 

A Justice Reinvestment working group first met at the Governor’s Residence in January.  Radio PA spoke at length with Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel about their progress in June.

Corrections Secretary Optimistic About Prison Reforms

Pennsylvania’s prison population increased by 40% between 2000 and 2011, driving General Fund spending up by 76% over that same time.  State prisons currently house more than 51,000 inmates, and nearly 45% of those released will be back behind bars within three years.

These were just a few of the trends confronted by the “Justice Reinvestment Working Group,” which got all of the stakeholders together to discuss ways to create a more efficient and effective prison system. State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is optimistic their recommendations will not only drive down the prison population, but reduce crime too.

“At six months out we should start seeing some progress in the numbers; 18-months out we should be seeing some strong population reduction, and improved outcomes.” says Wetzel.  “More people in to programming, shorter waiting lists, people being processed faster and people being successful when they get out.”

The reforms included in the bill will, in part, keep low-level offenders and technical parole violators out of state prisons.  It will also help officials to better match offenders’ needs with the appropriate treatment programs.

Pennsylvania is the 16th state to take the Justice Reinvestment Approach.  “It’s been a real range of states – large & small, red & blue – that have gone through this process,” explains Marc Pelka, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The savings could amount to $350-million dollars over the next five years, and some of that money will be earmarked for reinvestment in programs that prevent crime.

SB 100 has already received unanimous support in the General Assembly and now awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s signature.  The reinvestment language is pending in separate legislation.

You can hear our entire interview with Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on this weekend’s Roundtable program.

Diverse Group Presses for PA Prison Reforms

A new coalition of corrections reform advocates brings together voices from all across the political spectrum.  “I think extreme partisanship has affected government at all levels,” former Democratic Governor George Leader explained at a capitol appearance.  Leader praised the cooperative effort, which organizers are calling “transpartisan.” 

“We have common goals… We can spend less and get more from this,” added Matt Brouillette, who leads the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-thank in Harrisburg. 

They’re talking about Pennsylvania’s prison system, which has added 18-lockups since 1980 and currently houses 51,000 inmates. 

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

PA Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel

Nearly 45% of those who are released will wind up back behind bars within three years.  “We gloss over it by saying, ‘oh, that’s our recidivism rate.’  No.  These are people who are getting out and who are screwing up our community,” says Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel who’s lending his support to the new coalition. 

Wetzel says they’re already making policy changes to make the system more efficient and effective, but they need legislative help too.  “We’re talking about transforming the system to one that is corrections, literally.” 

The group wants to assess an offender’s risk earlier, target resources and programming to those most likely to re-offend and rely on specialty courts as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders. 

Secretary Wetzel is also trying to cut down on long waits to release prisoners who’ve already been paroled.  He says a 100-day delay costs the taxpayers $9,000 dollars per parolee. 

“If any of these things were going to save money, but potentially increase the crime rate, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Wetzel explains, as he stresses the goal is to reduce the crime rate.

Gov. Taps Task Force to Reduce Prison Costs

The new Justice Reinvestment Initiative panel will be tasked with helping to reduce the crime rate, decrease recidivism and lower corrections costs.  Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says the goals are all connected.  “We know with better outcomes we have less people coming back.  With less people coming back, that means they’re not screwing up when they’re out.  We’ll continue to focus on improving public safety by delivering better outcomes, and – by the way – we’re going to save money doing that.” 

Secretary Wetzel will lead the new task force alongside Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Chair Mark Zimmer. 

The group convened for the first time at the Governor’s Residence this week.  “Education, corrections and welfare take up about 95% of the budget pie,” Governor Tom Corbett told them.  Governor Corbett will deliver his second budget address on February 7th.

Governor Tom Corbett

Corbett addresses the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in the Governor's Residence.

Between 2000 and 2010, Pennsylvania’s prison population grew by 40% to more than 51,000 inmates.  Over that same time period, Department of Corrections spending increased by 76% to $1.9-billion.