Former Pa. Gov. George Leader promotes prison overhaul


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On Nov. 15, 1954, the cover of America's leading newsmagazine carried a photo of a grinning George M. Leader with his hands clasped in victory over his head.

For only the third time since the Civil War, a Democrat had been elected governor of Pennsylvania, part of a Democratic surge nationally. Editors of Time saw it as the biggest story of that year's campaign.

Today, a souvenir copy of the Time cover hangs in the offices of the George M. Leader Corp., inside a white house with green shutters along a rural road near Hershey, Pa..

Mr. Leader, 94, is forgotten but not gone. Now he is again popping up his head politically.

Six feet tall, with a raspy voice and white-on-white hair, Mr. Leader has lent his name to a campaign to overhaul the state's prison system.

Ten other governors have come along since Mr. Leader left Harrisburg in 1959 and settled into a quiet but prosperous life as the operator of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

For decades, he has been almost invisible politically. He has seldom attended a political dinner, seldom sat on a dais. "When I do give a speech," he jokes, "I say, 'I am here tonight to prove I am still alive.' "

The prison campaign -- "Real Corrections Reform, Right Now" -- has brought together several dozen notables from the political left and right in an effort to reduce the inmate population.

The group supports a bill that, among other things, would provide alcohol and drug treatment as an alternative to prison for many nonviolent offenders.

With Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, he recently co-signed an op-ed article that ran in a half-dozen newspapers across the state.

"In the past 30 years, Pennsylvania's incarceration rate exploded by more than 500 percent to more than 50,000 inmates, requiring the construction of 18 new prisons at a cost of $200 million, and millions more annually to maintain," they wrote.

"As a result," they said, "spending on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections grew 1,700 percent. At a cost of $35,000 per inmate per year, taxpayers have been ill-served by a system that locks up more people for longer periods but fails to deter future crimes."

Mr. Brouillette, 42, said he had enjoyed crossing political boundary lines to work with the liberal Mr. Leader, who was governor "before I was born."

Mr. Leader said his interest stemmed from work he has done with Second Chance Ministries, a Christian program that counsels inmates and seeks to help them stay free of crime when they get out.

Prisons are so packed, he said, that even when an inmate's time is up, it could take months before he is released because of backlogs in required drug-addiction prevention courses.

"Every idea has a time, and this is one for which the time has come," Mr. Leader said last week at his office. "The idea is to reform the prisons in a way that, over the next five years, is going to save the taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars."

Mr. Leader calls himself an entrepreneur. His interest in politics waned after he lost an election for the U.S. Senate in 1958 at the close of the one term allowed for governors then.

He worked behind the scenes for other Democrats until the 1970s, but became more and more absorbed in business and charitable work. (He supports orphanages in Ghana and Kenya.)

He remains a small political donor, giving $1,000 so far this year to the Democratic National Committee and $1,000 to his Democratic congressman, Tim Holden, who lost his April primary.

Mr. Leader tried to retire at age 80, turning his Country Meadows retirement communities over to his three sons and a daughter. But after six months, "I was just floundering," he said. He asked the children if it would be OK if he started another long-term care business, even as they ran the first. They said yes, and he's still at it.

He works "four, five, six" hours a day as chairman of Provident Place Retirement Community, a small group of long-term care facilities.

One day a week, he said, his driver takes him around in an 8-year-old Lincoln Town Car to inspect his various facilities.

He sold a farm and lives in an expanded apartment at one of his family's retirement centers. His wife, Mary Jane, whom he began dating at age 15, died last year.

A Wharton School graduate whose father, Guy, was a gentleman farmer and state senator from York County, Mr. Leader was 36 when he was elected governor in an upset over Pennsylvania's long-dominant GOP establishment. (His opponent was Lt. Gov. George Wood.)

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