Philosophies Color Differences Over PA's Corrections Budget

Mar 3, 2017

HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- The Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole are two of the state entities near the center of the Wolf administration's cost-cutting efforts. 

Credit mikecogh / Flickr

But throughout budget hearings, lawmakers have been voicing concerns that the proposed measures will make the state less safe.

One of the most drastic moves to lower corrections spending is the planned closure of Pennsylvania's oldest prison, SCI Pittsburgh.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said that'll save a little over $80 million. The closure is only possible because prison populations are declining as the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and '90s give way to new sentencing guidelines.

Wetzel supports getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent criminals -- pointing to the success the state's seen since largely axing minimums for drug crimes.

"In Pennsylvania in 2013, drug mandatories were essentially eliminated by the Supreme Court," he noted. "Since that time we've seen a significant population reduction. But we've also seen a crime reduction. Like, right here in Harrisburg, local officials were touting this."

But that philosophy has clashed with lawmakers--particularly Republicans, like Allegheny County's Randy Vulakovich.

Vulakovich pointedly questioned Wetzel on whether he supported mandatory minimums for various crimes.

Asked if he'd back them for drug deal cases in which the defendant is in possession of a firearm, Wetzel said, in general, no.

Vulakovich--and others--remained skeptical, though they praised Wetzel for his data driven approach.

The Republican said there is a reason tough sentencing was common for years: it showed results.

In addition to shortening some sentences, Wetzel is also working to close some of the state's halfway houses.

The facilities are designed to give support to released inmates so they don't relapse, but the secretary said often, they make things worse.

He wants to shift to an outpatient model for lower-risk parolees, and said the state is using a results-based approach to decide which facilities to shutter.