Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has been named to a national task force that will examine the criminal justice system, and most importantly, the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons.
Wetzel will begin work in January with eight other corrections officials on the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. The blue ribbon task force will undertake a comprehensive analysis of how to avert the continued growth of the federal prison population.
“We’re really looking to take lessons from the states in improving and reforming corrections and see what’s applicable at the federal level,” said Wetzel.
There are approximately 214,000 inmates currently in federal prisons, which is eight times more than in 1980, according to statistics from the corrections department.
Wetzel said the impact of a rising prison population goes well beyond the up-front cost of incarceration.
“There’s less money to spend on other things,” Wetzel said, “and in the case of the federal population system, what’s potentially at stake is things like homeland security, things like the FBI.”
The impact also reaches the home, according to Wetzel. The 51,000 inmates in Pennsylvania have approximately 81,000 children.
“When a parent is taken out of the home, especially in some of our more disadvantaged communities and communities of color, we know that those children become at risk,” Wetzel said.
In 2014, federal prison population dropped for the first time in more than 24 years. However, Wetzel said the task force will have to utilize data to find out how to keep this number headed in the right direction.
“We’re at a place now where there’s a huge body of research that says not only are we probably over utilizing incarceration, but we can reduce the usage of incarceration and still see a reduction in crime,” Wetzel said.