By Wallace McKelvey
John Wetzel is in a unique position.
As Pennsylvania’s corrections secretary, he’s developed a long-lens view of state politics. He has no power to enact laws or invest in social services but at any given time his department oversees more than 50,000 incarcerated people whose lives are directly affected by those laws and those investments (or lack thereof).
Wetzel’s also served two diametrically opposed governors, the two Toms: Corbett and Wolf. That’s perhaps a result of his no-nonsense approach to public policy, which emphasizes hard data over emotion, long-term planning over short-term rhetoric.
“We don’t have the guts to fund things that aren’t going to pay off right away because we’re worried about getting re-elected in two years,” he said, during a freewheeling conversation with PennLive’s editorial board.
Here are several takeaways from that conversation.
Pennsylvania needs reform… now.
In December, Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative made a series of recommendations designed to cut costs, reduce crime and put a stop the revolving door of nonviolent offenders. So far, little progress has been made as the Legislature spent untold energy this year not passing a budget.
“All the stakeholder groups have gotten input,” he said. “We’re waiting for movement in the General Assembly.”
One area that seems to frustrate Wetzel the most is the bail system. The question of whether a defendant stays in jail or is released pending trial often boils down to that person’s ability to pay, he said, not whether they are a true risk to the community.
And there’s another wrinkle: Many magisterial district judges don’t have access to protection from abuse orders, leading to cases in which serial domestic abusers are let out to continue their abuse.
“We all say, ‘the tragedy, the tragedy’,” Wetzel said. “Bull—-. Do something.”
New Jersey may provide one model for how to fix that. A recent overhaul of its system that eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent offenders and bases decisions on historical data of who’s most likely to skip bail.
Criminal justice reform starts in the classroom.
It may sound odd but, in keeping with his long view, Wetzel said one of the most effective ways to reform the criminal justice reform is education. Children who grow up without good educational opportunities are for more likely to end up in one of his prisons.
“If you want to look at criminal justice reform, it actually has very little to do with criminal justice. We know that early childhood [education] works,” he said, citing research linking dropping out of school with incarceration.
“It’s frustrating,” he said, “sitting at the back of the system, talking to inmates and there’s the kid who graduated from Philadelphia school system–and I don’t want to single out Philadelphia here–and can’t read.”
SCI Phoenix is almost done.
To mix our metaphors a bit, SCI Phoenix — the new prison that will replace the 88-year-old Graterford, which is showing its age — has been Pennsylvania’s albatross. The $400 million project, which began long before Wetzel’s tenure, faced one delay after another and has taken about a decade to come to fruition.
“I may never be able to hear ‘Phoenix’ again without getting sick to my stomach, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Wetzel said. “I wake up in the middle of the night and say ‘Phoenix’.”
Much of the actual construction is complete, the secretary said. Now, the various SCI Phoenix buildings are undergoing inspections to ensure the various systems (such as HVAC and security) are up to code. Once that’s done, staff has to be trained to use the new technology and the logistics of transferring some 3,000 inmates from one facility to the other has to be worked out. Wetzel said he expects to have the new prison up and running by next summer.
The pace of progress
Everyone has a hobby horse (or 15) when it comes to state politics. For Wetzel, it’s the way policy proposals are debated in a vacuum, with no attention paid to existing research — be that crime data or incarceration data.
“I really like the talk about evidence-based budgeting,” he said, referring to a proposal championed by legislative Republicans. “Apply that to public policy also. We should not be doing anything where it’s not research-based.”
Wetzel said the evidence supporting bail reform, sentencing reform and even public education investment is already out there. The problem, he said, is that most policymakers don’t consider it. Or worse, fear overwhelms logic.
“Everything we built, from a criminal justice standpoint, is based on real data,” he said. “That’s what good government is supposed to be.”