Harrisburg, PA – John Wetzel, Corrections Secretary under the Wolf Administration, was the keynote speaker this week at the Safety and Justice Challenge Network meeting in Denver, which brought together 350 criminal justice professionals from 40 jurisdictions across the country to discuss ways to safely reduce prison populations and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.
Wetzel highlighted sweeping efforts under way in Pennsylvania to ensure inmates achieve success after release, including making comprehensive changes in mental health and substance use disorder treatment, reducing the use of restrictive housing and using data-driven approaches to reduce recidivism.
Wetzel also discussed successes achieved by the Department of Corrections in reducing the prison population – especially of minority inmates – and efforts to reduce incarceration for low-risk individuals under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. He urged participants to take a hard look at their prison systems, as he did in Pennsylvania, and change course if necessary.
“It’s a measure of courage to acknowledge that your system is not where it should be,” Wetzel said. “If people think the only way achieve public safety is to lock people up when the data says otherwise, then something’s wrong. That’s why Governor Tom Wolf and the Corrections Department put a high value on measurable outcomes and individual focus.”
Governor Wolf has demonstrated a commitment to public safety and has advocated forward-looking initiatives to ensure that those entering prison – 95 percent of whom will be released one day – return as better people and productive citizens.
Governor Wolf supports the use of Medication Assisted Treatment to ensure state inmates with substance use disorder do not relapse when released and included federal grants to support similar treatment in county jails. Wolf recently announced he would eliminate the criminal conviction question from applications for most state jobs. This week the Civil Service Commission announced its intention to do the same.
The Safety and Justice Challenge is a national effort aimed at reducing over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. An initial five-year, $100 million investment by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation features a competition to help jurisdictions across the country create fairer, more effective local justice systems.
Two Pennsylvania jurisdictions were awarded grants as part of this initiative. Philadelphia will invest in strategies to safely reduce its average daily jail population over the next three years. Allegheny County will use its innovation grant to build computer dashboards to integrate data and monitor key points in the criminal justice system to help reduce its prison population.