The Interview: PA prisons boss John Wetzel confronts the complexities of juvie lifers' new sentences

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, prisons boss since 2011.

THE U.S. Supreme Court this year ruled that juveniles sentenced to life with no chance of parole must be given new sentencing hearings. In Pennsylvania, which has more juvenile lifers than any state, this is a massive undertaking.

A key mover in the process is state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, prisons boss since 2011.

Wetzel, 47, from Myerstown, Lebanon County, has 26 years of prison experience, starting as a part-timer during college. He has worked in or run prisons in Lebanon, Berks, and Franklin Counties. The system he now runs has 26 prisons, 50,000 inmates, 15,000 staffers, and a $2.4 billion budget.

He's also a member of Harvard's Executive Session on Community Corrections, and has consulted and spoken nationally on a range of corrections issues.

And he's a former semipro football player (offensive lineman, Central Penn Piranha; still wears a 1997 championship ring), who played at Bloomsburg and coached at Shippensburg University while working at a nearby prison from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Wetzel is married and has four daughters ages 14 to 21. He recently sat down with columnist John Baer to talk about juvenile lifers.

Q What was the basis for the Supreme Court decision?

It was an expansion of a decision in 2012. And the reason the Supreme Court made the decision is because of the science around brain development and especially the science that says male brains don't develop entirely until around age 25, which limits abilities to truly form intent.

Q So resentencing could result in new sentences, release with parole, or outright release?

Correct. There are many moving parts, and it depends on many factors. But a judge could release a longtime lifer based on time served, something we don't recommend [because immediate release would preclude working with longtimers to help them transition back into society]. Another could be resentenced to a term shorter than life. Another who, let's say, already served 20 years might be resentenced to anywhere from 20 to 40 years with life on parole, which would make him now eligible for parole. Then it's up to the parole board. So we're going to see all kinds of results.

Q And I imagine some, if not a lot, of this will be unsettling to the families of victims?

There have been and will be negotiated sentences with district attorneys, defense attorneys, and victims' families. There's a group of victims who thought their case was over, and now they have to relive it. Making sure we mitigate the impact on them is a key part of this. But among the results we're going to see, there are going to be some contentious ones.

Q How many will get out, and how long will it take?

In Pennsylvania, we have more juvenile lifers than anywhere else. We have 513, about 300 of which are from Philadelphia. . . . And I think it's likely that 50 percent to two-thirds will get out. And, best case, it'll take about four years.

Q How does it all get done?

Like everything else in Pennsylvania, it works 67 ways [a reference to our 67 counties]. Philadelphia has a smart game plan, believe it or not, with three judges assigned to cases. And we're working with them with teams in place and already have 96 cases in the first stages, and three or four lifers already have been released.

Q What ages are we talking about?

The oldest is in his mid-60s. He's been locked up for 50 years. And about 320 of the total have been in longer than 20 years. Pretty stunning.

Q What are you finding when you talk to them?

We're seeing a high level of anxiety. A lot of them made peace with the fact they were going to spend their life in prison. Now, many have an opportunity to get out into a world they don't know. It's like you get locked up in the Flintstones era and you're getting out in the Jetsons era, to go old-cartoons. About 230 of them don't have Social Security numbers, so we've been working with the Social Security Administration. What could go wrong with two big government bureaucracies trying to solve a problem for 230 people?

Q Have you spoken to any already released?

I've spoken to them. Every one talked about how fast everything moves. They talked about struggling to cross the street, about now being in a cellphone world, where you go to Wawa to touchscreen your sandwich. They talked about an inability to take care of themselves. There are a lot of barriers.

Q And how are you dealing with those?

By first dealing with basics. We're doing counseling before they get out. When they get out, many will go to halfway houses. So we're working with the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and others to get them clothes. . . .

One thing we did after the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision was start making juvenile lifers eligible for programs aimed toward release, such as vocational and job-readiness training, because we pretty much assumed the 2012 decision would be made retroactive at some point.

Q In all your years in corrections, did you ever see or experience anything like this?

No. It's just unique. . . . You've matured in prison. You go in as a kid, and now you're getting out as an adult. It's tough to imagine what we're going to need to have in place to put them in the best posture to be successful.