Pa. Corrections Officials Explore Reducing Incarceration Rates
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is also a federal task force examining ways to lower incarceration rates. Its members include John Wetzel, who manages a state prison population.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
He's head of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and he notes that his state is 1 of 30 where prison populations have begun to drop in recent years.
JOHN WETZEL: I think, generally, we should not paint with broad brushes and judging people by their worst day. And oftentimes, that's what our system and our society does. And I'll tell you that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, we hire folks who've actually been in our prisons. I'm not saying that we're handing out applications while people are walking out the back door. But I am saying we'll take individual chances on individuals who we feel have good behavior and those kinds of things. And I think that we're all invested in folks getting out and staying out.
INSKEEP: So suppose the president or the attorney general got you on the phone and said, what else would you have me do? What's a recommendation you would give?
WETZEL: I think I'd really start at the front of the system, and I'd say that we really need to look at who needs to be incarcerated in a federal prison to ensure public safety. We also have to understand what drove the crime in the first place. I mean, we've seen good success around drug courts and mental health courts, and, here in Pennsylvania, we have veteran's courts. We need to plug individuals in with the focus on restoring them as full citizens. So I think that's an important part of this.
INSKEEP: Do you, as a corrections official, accept a common saying that putting more people in prison breeds more criminals? Do you think that's a basic operating statement that's true?
WETZEL: Yeah, I think the data would support that. And that's why these decisions at who needs to be incarcerated is so important. I mean, let's be honest, there's some things that you do that have such a negative impact on the community or on individuals in the community, it creates victims - that part of your path needs to go through a prison, right? But we really need to make good decisions up front. So that requires us to, first of all, have the response be equal to the crime itself. There's another path that we can put people on when they commit a crime that doesn't necessarily mean they have to serve three decades in a state prison because we're mad at them.
INSKEEP: As more and more people are released in Pennsylvania and across the country, are you kept up at night by the thought that sooner or later there will be some ex-offender who was released through these programs who is accused of some horrific crime?
WETZEL: That is always part of our criminal justice system. I mean, people graduate from college and commit crimes. Of course people are going to get out of prisons and commit crimes. But I think one of the things that we can all look to is California's realignment. Since 2011, they've released about 37,000 people. Through 2014, they've not seen an increase in crime, and the only one area that they've seen an increase in is property crimes and specifically auto thefts. So certainly there needs to be some more scrutiny around what it is about that. But I think we should really feel confident that we can improve criminal justice policy, and the result of that improvement is both a reduction in prison population and a reduction in crime.
INSKEEP: John Wetzel, thanks very much.
WETZEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.