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BLOG: ICYMI Corrections Secretary Wetzel talks Prison Reform on 60 Minutes

By: J.J. Abbott, Deputy Press Secretary

April 11, 2016

Recently, Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel appeared on “60 Minutes,’’ talking about prison reform in this country and the improvements we’re making here in Pennsylvania.

Click here to watch the full “60 Minutes” episode featuring Secretary Wetzel.

The national CBS news show, featuring Wetzel, compared America’s corrections system to the German system, where they reportedly have less prisoners and get better results, including lower recidivism rates.

“More now than any time in the history of our country we have the right and left agree that we’ve, frankly, screwed up the corrections system for 30 years and it’s time to do something different,’’ Wetzel said. “It really starts with understanding that a human being’s value isn’t diminished by being incarcerated.’’

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As a nation, we spend about $80 billion to incarcerate about two million offenders. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has about 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

Pennsylvania’s prison population has steadily declined in recent years and is now just under 50,000 offenders. Ninety percent of those individuals will be released someday.

That’s where the German corrections’ system claims to focus its energy and efforts: rehabilitation in order to successfully reintegrate offenders into society.

German officials contend the key to their success is having correctional officers who are well-paid and well-trained in areas of psychology, communication skills and conflict management.

Psychologists also devise personalized prison plans for all new inmates, preparing them from the first day for successful reentry, offering counseling, vocational and educational training. Offenders who successfully follow the plan earn greater freedoms and early release.

There are problems with the German system, Wetzel noted, such as drugs, gangs and Islamic radicalization. They try and counter it all with counseling.

While there are certainly things about the German approach that would not make sense for Pennsylvania, there are opportunities for us to learn. Accountability is necessary, but so is focusing on successful reentry. Rather than punishment for punishment’s sake, it’s equally important for us to place an offender on a path to leave a life of crime.

“In our culture, when we think about the criminal justice system,” Wetzel said, “we don’t want to think lenient. We don’t want to think soft. We got here by being tough on crime. I think we’re getting away from it by being smart on crime, and smart on crime happens to be more lenient.’’

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“Smart on crime,” in Pennsylvania, includes similar initiatives, such as more intensive staff training and incentivizing offenders through good behavior, such as housing units outside the prison walls, but still within the correctional confines.

Pennsylvania has also upgraded, modernized and increased its educational and vocational programs for offenders to better prepare them for the workforce. It also imposed performance-based contracts for its halfway houses, offering financial incentives for better outcomes and lower recidivism rates. The goal is always a successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals back into society.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has also improved the treatment of offenders with mental health issues, which comprises one-fourth of our total prison population. Mental health awareness training is mandated for staff and peer support training is offered to inmates.

Wetzel and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ staff, under the leadership of Governor Tom Wolf, are continuing to make great strides not only to reduce the number of offenders, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to improve the success of those who will return someday to their families and our communities.

Such programs as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which redirects resources to the front-end of the criminal justice system with treatment, prevention and diversionary programs, have already won bi-partisan support from our state leadership. Governor Wolf said it best, our goal is and always will be less crime, less victims.

At the end of Sunday’s news segment, “60 Minutes’’ reporter Bill Whitaker asked Wetzel if Americans are ready for the huge mind shift toward a different sort of prison system.

“It’s crossing the Grand Canyon is what we’re talking about,’’ Wetzel said.

But in Pennsylvania, we’re already taking the first steps on that long journey to a better place.

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