State’s corrections work seen as example for the nation

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WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections is becoming a regular on Capitol Hill and a voice lawmakers turn to as they shape federal prison reform policy.

A month ago, Secretary John E. Wetzel and Gov. Tom Corbett addressed lawmakers during a Senate briefing on prison recidivism. And Tuesday, Mr. Wetzel was back to provide more details, this time to the House Judiciary Committee.

Pennsylvania’s three-year recidivism rate decreased by 7.1 percent since 2008, according to a recent report commissioned by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. Lawmakers in Washington want to know how Mr. Wetzel’s department achieved that.

One key was addressing problems at halfway houses that were uncovered by a 2009 University of Cincinnati study the department commissioned, Mr. Wetzel told them. It found that offenders leaving halfway houses had a 95 percent higher recidivism rate than prisoners released directly to the street.

He began to turn that around by developing a performance incentive program to reward private operators who hold down recidivism and punish those who don’t by revoking contracts. But that was just one part of Pennsylvania’s answer to recidivism.

“We were determined to use our corrections system to do exactly what we say we do, which is to correct people,” Mr. Wetzel said in prepared remarks.

Doing that well required a new risk-based sentencing tool to guide judges on where to place offenders. It involved partnering with the Department of Labor and Industry for help assessing the prison system’s vocational offerings, to better prepare ex-offenders for the workforce upon release. It required structured mentoring through new contracts established with nonprofits and faith-based community organizations. It required access to mental health services in halfway houses. And that’s not all.

The prison system sought to ensure offenders had more tools to succeed after release. Inmates began leaving prison with computer jump drives and smart apps containing guides and maps to community resources. It also developed a housing voucher program to provide security deposits and rental aid for low-risk inmates whose lack of a place to go left them in halfway houses despite release recommendations.

“Low-risk offenders do not need the services of a halfway house. As a matter of fact, it makes them worse,” Mr. Wetzel said. “By carving this group out, we create a capacity in our halfway houses, and we also make a better investment that puts them a step closer to housing permanence.”

Next, the Department of Corrections partnered with the Department of Transportation to ensure inmates left with state identification cards required to access many services. Last year, more than 9,000 inmates had IDs when they left prison. Previously, fewer than 400 of the 20,000 inmates released each year had identification ca

Pennsylvania has about 51,000 prison inmates.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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