Seeking insight on prison reform? Ask locked-up legislators

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Bill DeWeese is not the first Pennsylvania politician to decide we need prison reform once he found himself behind bars, but he's got an interesting twist to his penal epiphany.

With so many lawmakers-turned-lawbreakers now in the state's prisons, he reasons, there's never been a better time for legislators to gather on-the-scene information.

Call that thinking inside the box.

I visited DeWeese at the medium-security state prison in Retreat last Monday. It's tucked in a leafy valley between the Susquehanna River and the foothills of the Poconos, an ugly building in a lovely setting.

DeWeese, a Democrat, is the former speaker of the House. His Republican counterpart, John Perzel of Philadelphia, is cooling his heels in the minimum-security Laurel Highlands prison in Somerset. DeWeese's former right-hand man as Democratic whip, Mike Veon of Beaver Falls, is in those mountain confines, too.

Then there's Jane Orie, the former Republican senator from McCandless, locked up in Cambridge Springs in Crawford County; Brett Feese, the former Republican representative from Lycoming County, doing time at Waymart in the state's northeast corner; and Steve Stetler, the former Democrat rep and revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell, in his home county jail in York. (Had we cut a seat from America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature each time a lawmaker was convicted of a felony, we'd be down to a reasonable size by now.)

While these felons now command about as much power as a 30-watt bulb and represent but a sliver of the 50,000-plus prisoners in commonwealth slammers, they do have that singular perspective that can come only from serving in both the statehouse and the Big House.

So DeWeese thinks the judiciary committees of the House and Senate, as well as the policy committees of the party caucuses, should stop by and interview their former colleagues while their impressions are as fresh as the morning walk to the yard.

We spend an enormous amount of money on prisons in this state. We're holding six times as many Pennsylvania prisoners as we did in 1980. That incarceration boom has sent the Department of Corrections budget soaring to $1.86 billion. Incredible.

"Every time you see three guys in brown [prison jumpsuits], it's 100 grand,'' DeWeese told me as we sat in the cafeteria-sized visitors room at the prison. "There's a half million in this room.''

Mandatory sentencing has fueled the prison boom. About a quarter of the state's prisoners are non-violent offenders doing time for drug charges, fraud and the like.

"Half the people I've met could be on ankle bracelets,'' DeWeese said, by which he meant house arrest, the punishment that former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is serving now for her own corruption conviction.

His estimate of half is probably high, and you might also say it's self-serving. DeWeese is one of those non-violent offenders. But any broad reforms won't affect him. He's in his 14th month of incarceration and is eligible for parole in March. This is about trying to save tens of millions -- maybe hundreds of millions -- of dollars by getting more non-violent criminals out of the prisons.

"The precious dollars could immediately sluice into the paltry exchequer of the Pennsylvania Department of Education,'' DeWeese said.

Most people would rather see investments in students than prisoners, but I don't have high hopes for major reforms. Back in the 1990s, after Republican Attorney General Ernie Preate spent 11 months in federal prison for mail fraud, he came out suggesting that community service and restitution made much more sense than warehousing non-violent offenders.

Preate testified before the House, but his suggestions went nowhere. The state continued to build prisons (and DeWeese himself lobbied to build them in his district) because most citizens give prisons as much thought as they do sanitation. Just put the refuse at the curb and take it away so we don't have to think about it. And, for God's sake, don't show us the bill.

So while this may be a unique moment in Pennsylvania political history, don't bet too heavily on sitting lawmakers trooping off to the prisons. That seems a bit risky these days. Some who go in might be afraid they won't come out again.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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