Baer: Look! There's something good in the legislature

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel tours the new children's visiting room at Chester State Correctional Institute and talks about the importance of early childhood education and how it can improve incarceration rates Friday February 19, 2016. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Every so often (OK, very infrequently), I find something in our loathsome legislature that offers value and is worthy of praise.

It’s rare, but it happens.

A new proposal from the state Department of Corrections is an excellent example. There’s nothing like it in the nation. And it appears it will be enacted.

It’s in a bipartisan state Senate bill that would create something dubbed the “First Chance Trust Fund” for children with a parent in prison.

There are more than 81,000 such kids in Pennsylvania, roughly 22,000 of them in Philly.

This is not some liberal, soft-on-crime, goo-goo giveaway. It’s aimed at helping innocents.

It does not involve tax dollars. It’s based on research showing that when a child’s father (even an absent father) or mother is in prison, that child faces lasting harm, including increased odds of dropping out of school and also ending up in prison.

So, what’s being offered is a forward-thinking idea to improve the future of affected kids, the prison system and, by extension, society.

Imagine something from Harrisburg that looks beyond the next election.

The trust would provide scholarships and grants to keep kids in school with mentoring and tutoring, and to augment other community-based programs through groups such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Clubs.

It would be funded by private donations and a 1 percent surcharge on prison vendors with large contracts ($5 million or more) for food and health services, utilities and statewide halfway-houses.

It’s expected to raise $500,000 to $1 million a year to start.

The idea comes from Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, a nationally recognized expert who has worked in prison systems for more than a quarter-century.

I’ve written about him before. He’s a widely respected holdover from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, reappointed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

The bill’s principal sponsors are Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) and Sen. Richard Alloway (R., Franklin).

Alloway tells me, “This isn’t about Republican or Democrat. This isn’t just an issue affecting city kids. It affects country kids, too.”

Alloway is a former magisterial district judge who met Wetzel when Wetzel was warden of Franklin County Jail.

It was Alloway who brought Wetzel to state government, recommending him to Corbett and introducing him to the Senate for confirmation.

“Four or five senators laughed,” says Alloway, “They said, `Really, you want a county warden to be secretary of corrections?’ And I said, `Just meet with him, talk with him.’ After they did, they all said, `Wow.’ ”

Wetzel was confirmed in May 2011.

Hughes also credits Wetzel, says the fund “makes absolute sense, has potential to grow and could break the cycle” of kids of inmates becoming inmates.

(A 2014 Brookings Institution study says there is a 70 percent chance that an African American male without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-30s.)

Wetzel tells me that he and his staff started working on the trust fund idea about 18 months ago, and that vendors he has discussed it with are receptive to the surcharge.

He says he’s sharing the idea with corrections colleagues throughout the country, adding, “We should get this started as soon as possible.”

Hughes and Alloway — other sponsors include Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) and Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) – say they’ll press for quick action.

Good. Our legislature is not exactly known for quick action, or much of anything that’s positive. This is positive and deserves quick action.

Getting it done might even remind lawmakers that’s OK to address real problems with a long view rather than their common practice of taking a pass on tough stuff.