Inquirer Editorial: Close inmates' revolving door

Corrections chief John Wetzel
Corrections chief John Wetzel
Posted: March 29, 2013

Pennsylvania's prison halfway houses are a failure. More felons who spent time in halfway houses return to jail than among those released directly from prison to the streets.

That stunning conclusion comes from Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who gets points for having the vision to look for the system's flaws and try to fix them.

Wetzel ordered an in-house study, which showed that 67 percent of inmates released from halfway houses wound up back in jail within three years, compared with 60 percent of inmates released directly from prisons. "Let's stop continuing to do the same thing the same way and expect a different result," said Wetzel.

He plans to renegotiate contracts with the 38 private operators of halfway houses to give them incentives to cut down on recidivism or else be put on a path to lose their contracts. Wetzel is giving the operators of all halfway houses, including 13 run by the state, a year to improve. Altogether, the halfway houses cost the state $110 million annually.

Wetzel is also trying to improve prisoners' transition from incarceration to society, which could mean providing better housing and job training. Convicts who return to a supportive home or have a job lined up are more likely to succeed in the outside world than those who don't. Halfway houses, he notes, cost $70 a day per resident. Alternative housing might be more cost-effective.

New Jersey needs to follow Pennsylvania's example and take an equally frank view of its halfway houses, which a state comptroller report and a New York Times series showed to be poorly supervised residences where violence, drug abuse, and escapes are common.

Unfortunately, additional studies ordered to give New Jersey politicians the backbone to make sweeping reforms have been given outrageous post-2014 completion dates. That obvious stalling tactic will serve to protect a buddy-buddy system in which halfway house contractors supply politicians with campaign contributions. The contractors should be held accountable for recidivism.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Wetzel promises to use a better halfway house and prison system to reduce recidivism through effective rehabilitation. He wants to stop warehousing people until they return to society with little hope of building new, productive lives.

The need for a thoughtful, aggressive attack on Pennsylvania's recidivism problem is summed up in the first line of Wetzel's report: "One in 200 adult Pennsylvanians is currently incarcerated in a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution." Ninety percent will be released from prison, and many will commit crimes again.

Those numbers don't include the thousands on parole or in federal or county lockups. Taken together, the numbers mean Pennsylvania has hit a tipping point. There is barely a soul in the state who doesn't know someone who has been in the criminal justice system, which makes effective rehabilitation everyone's concern.

Wetzel's unvarnished view of the state corrections system and his attempts to hold halfway house operators accountable is a big step on the right course.

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