Study shows high recidivism; Pa. prisons chief seeks answers

Posted: March 06, 2013

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's prisons chief told lawmakers Monday that a new study shows "shockingly high" rates of offenders being rearrested or jailed again, but said his department was employing an array of strategies to address the problem.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, speaking at a Senate Budget Committee hearing, said two-thirds of state inmates are either arrested again or sent back to prison after being released.

Philadelphia, along with Delaware and Montgomery Counties, has the highest rate of arrests of the 67 counties, but it is not in the top 10 counties for the number of released inmates sent back to prison, according to the study by Wetzel's department.

The study, first released Thursday, did not offer explanation about why urban counties have higher rearrest rates and rural counties have higher reincarceration rates.

Wetzel said one way to curb the problem is to offer financial incentives to halfway house operators whose residents stay out of trouble.

"We are not creating an environment that is conducive to rehabilitation," Wetzel said, adding that the fact that recidivism rates have remained basically unchanged for 10 years is evidence that something needs to be done.

He added a sobering statistic from the report: One in 200 adult Pennsylvanians is behind bars.

Standing at nearly $2 billion, the corrections budget is, along with the Departments of Public Welfare and Education, among the most costly state agencies.

Wetzel wants to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, and has a goal of reducing inmate populations by 3,500 over the next five years.

The halfway house initiative, announced with the recidivism study, calls for the state to renegotiate contracts with companies that run 38 community corrections centers - better known as halfway houses - with a bonus incentive.

If the recidivism rate for inmates handled by a center declines, the contractor will be paid a higher rate by the state. Wetzel said he believes the program is the first in the nation.

The incentive plan is the latest in a series of initiatives that are part of a criminal-justice reform effort led by Gov. Corbett that aims to reduce state prison populations, in part by shifting some offenders to county facilities, and to direct funding to target high-risk individuals before they end up in prison.

Among the study's other findings:

About 10 percent of all police arrests in Pennsylvania involve released state inmates.

Per capita arrest rates for violent crimes are 14 times higher among released inmates compared with the general public.

Individuals most likely to commit new crimes appear to be those convicted of property crimes. The least likely to repeat are those incarcerated for rape, arson, or driving under the influence of intoxicants. More than half of those who return to prison do so within a year of release - by far the highest risk period for returning to prison.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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