Correcting Corrections

You know how some things that tax dollars pay for never seem to get better or cost less?

Well, the state's massive prison system (16,000 employees; 51,000 inmates), the third most expensive budget item in Pennsylvania, is trying to both get better AND cost less.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel calls the current system "inefficient" and says we don't need to spend $2 billion a year to run it.

The state budget proposal before the Legislature calls for the first prisons spending cut in decades. It's modest, from $1.88 billion to $1.87 billion, but it's a start.

Wetzel, a from-the-ground-up corrections official and former offensive line football coach at Shippensburg University, started as a guard in Lebanon County in 1989.

He spoke Monday at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon.

Wetzel stressed that one-third of all new prisoners - 3,500 a year - are "short-term offenders" sentenced to a year or less, often half of which is spent in county jails awating processing into the state system.

"The system was developed for major offenders," Wetzel said,"it was never set up for relatively short-term offenders."

But getting new prisoners into the system adds strain on resources and overall costs and increases the likelihood of recidivism that comes from putting non-violent criminals into populations of violent criminals.

The department now has established three housing units for new, short-term inmates and is streamlining the entry process.

In addition, the department has partnered with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council of State Governments for an A-to-Z review of the system.

After Wetzel spoke, I asked if all the mandatory sentencing laws of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a mistake.

He said that at the time, the crime numbers probably justified the laws but that they should have included sunset provisions. We don't have such provisions, he said.

I'm thinking maybe that was a mistake, and now might be a good time to fix it.

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