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Panel Talks Corrections Reform in Pennsylvania

A wide-ranging panel is urging the state to adopt prison reform measures that could could save money and reduce the inmate population. The coalition includes former Governor George Leader, Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, and leaders of groups across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Pennsylvania Family Institute and the conservative Commonwealth Foundation.

Wetzel suggests that the "front end" needs to be strengthened first. He says local law enforcement, parole and probation officers should have the training and resources available to them to make good decisions and crack down on crimes no matter how small or large.

"If you look at the continuum, from beginning to end, we have the opportunity with some really focused, surgical legislation, coupled with internal policy changes, and coupled with a true commitment to work as a system, I think we have an opportunity [to reform]," Wetzel said.

Some changes are already being discussed internally. Wetzel explains that there have been discussions of targeting those with a sentence of less than one year, or "short-mins."

"The short-mins in particular have been the fastest growing part of our population," Wetzel said. "We're in the process of identifying and developing three short-min facilities where we would abbreviate the assessment process from three months to about three weeks or shorter."

The coalition urged the parole process be streamlined. Inmates approved for parole now wait an average of 100 days to be released from prison. That costs the taxpayer about $90 per day.

Wetzel said that the Corbett administration has been focusing on what the government can and cannot control in the corrections system. The administration has no say in how inmates are released.

"The parole board is not going to change how they make their decisions," Wetzel said. "They're not going to say, 'Because we're crowded and because the budget is going up we're going to let people out who we shouldn't let out otherwise."

Wetzel also cited Senate Bill 100, currently in the state House, that he says could increase the number of offenders entering the State Intermediate Punishment Program (SID) currently reserved for drug offenders. As it stands now, the prosecutor and the sentencing judge must recommend the offender for the program and then the offender has to agree to take part. Wetzel suggests changing some of those requirements in order to reduce the probability of another offense in the future.