Department of Corrections to Play Major Role in National Prison Reform Discussions, Programs

| May 17, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel co-facilitated the Urban Institute’s Next50 Changemaker Forum in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

Joined by Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, they led a discussion of the knowledge development needed to support more transparency, accountability and innovation in prison, with the goal of promoting a more humane and rehabilitative environment, both for prison employees and incarcerated individuals.

“According to many think tanks, philanthropy organizations and even prison administrators, American prisons are understudied, inaccessible and unaccountable,” Secretary Wetzel said. “And while federal, state and local governments are tackling prison systems that are crowded, costly and ineffective; focus, up to this point mostly has been on efforts to drive down the prison population. Little focus has been devoted to the working and living conditions faced by prison employees and inmates.”

At Thursday’s events, Arnold Ventures announced their plans to lead prison reform through multiple grants and through support of a Pennsylvania DOC/Drexel University project that will begin this summer where approximately one dozen DOC employees will be sent for several weeks to Sweden and Norway to learn more about their programs. Upon their return, the employees will try to replicate what they observed and experienced in a housing unit set aside just for them to do so. In addition, they will randomly assign spots to inmates, retrain staff and measure outcomes.

“I am extremely excited for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to be playing a role in larger prison reform discussions and programs,” Wetzel said.

Back in Pennsylvania, the PA DOC has experienced great strides in improving operations thanks to a 2017 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the DOC and the PA Board of Probation and Parole, which consolidated reentry and parole supervision under the DOC.

“While we’ve improved our processes and eliminated redundancies, there’s still more work to be done, as evidenced by the grants being established by Arnold Ventures. We will continue to try new methods to create a more efficient, fair, safe and humane prison system,” Wetzel said.

Since the consolidation under the MOU, accomplishments achieved by the PA DOC include:

The percent of the supervised parole population who recidivate (are rearrested or reincarcerated) in a month has dropped from 1.8 percent of the parole population in the year before the consolidation, to 1.7 percent of the parole population since the consolidation. This translates to approximately 41 fewer recidivists per month since the consolidation, or a total of approximately 615 fewer recidivists in the 15 months since the consolidation. On average, there have been 34 fewer inmates on the parole release pending list each month since the consolidation.

There have been 73 less parole violators returned to DOC custody each month in the first year after the consolidation compared to the year just prior to the merger. This translates into a total of approximately 873 less parole violator admissions in the first year since the consolidation.

The percent of parolees who were arrested in a month dropped by 14 percent from 2017 to 2018, translating to approximately 79 less parolees who were rearrested by the policy for a new crime in 2018.

Overall recidivism and parole recommitment rates decreased in Fiscal Year 2018-2019.
Pennsylvania crime rates continue to decline. In 2017 (the latest official crime statistics available), the crime rate dropped by 4.7 percent in Pennsylvania, which was 1.4 percentage points more than the nationwide crime rate dropped in 2017. In fact, the crime rate is at a level not seen since 1968.

“The goal remains the same, to continue to improve public safety for Pennsylvanians by having people leave our custody less likely to commit a crime than when they came to us,” Wetzel said. “Since the consolidation we have been able to combine efforts and cultures to work toward a collective goal of safer Pennsylvania communities and rehabilitated returning citizens.”

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