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Smart Talk is a daily, live, interactive program featuring conversations with newsmakers and experts in a variety of fields and exploring a wide range of issues and ideas, including the economy, politics, health care, education, culture, and the environment.  Smart Talk airs live every week day at 9 a.m. on WITF’s 89.5 and 93.3.

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Taming Our Prison Population and Cost - SMART TALK TV, Thurs. at 8 PM

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | May 8, 2012 4:31 PM

It is a staggering figure.  We spend $1.87 BILLION a year in Pennsylvania to feed, clothe, house, supervise, and hopefully, rehabilitate people in prison.  The cells are bursting from overcrowding and taxpayers seem fed up with the skyrocketing public outlay going merely to contain criminals, many of whom are non-violent but are drug-and/or-alcohol-addicted.  Corrections Secretary John Wetzel wants to put the brakes on prison spending.  Find out how on Smart Talk, Thursday night at 8, on witf TV.

John Wetzel is 6'3", a former offensive-line star at Bloomsburg University, a former semi-pro football player and a formidable physical presence overseeing Pennsylvania's vast corrections system.  His thinking on how to reform our criminal-justice enterprise is equally impressive.  He raised some eyebrows – and the ire of former State Rep. Bill DeWeese - early on by cancelling the planned construction of a prison in Fayette County.  He explained, "Prison construction is not economic development." 

Wetzel also revised plans for a new prison at Graterford in Montgomery County by adding a wing for female offenders who are about to leave the system.  Twenty-seven percent of Pennsylvania's female inmates come from Philadelphia but the nearest prison for them is 127 miles away.  Wetzel says it's important for all inmates to be close to the communities to which they will eventually return.

It was during his time as warden of the Franklin County Jail that the buzz started building around Wetzel.  He oversaw construction of a state-of-the-art county prison, created a day-reporting center, and instituted a variety of programs designed both to reduce the inmate population and ensure that prisoners had a successful re-entry to society.  Wetzel succeeded beyond expectations.  It is a model the Corbett team wants him to emulate at the state level.

Last January, the governor and Wetzel launched the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.  The panel, comprised of judges, lawmakers, Cabinet officials and others involved in the criminal-justice system, is re-imagining how Pennsylvania does prisons.  The goal is to cut drastically Pennsylvania's incarceration rates, recidivism and costs. 

That is a daunting task.  Consider some of the stats assembled by the Council of State Governments, a member of the JRI: 

"Between 2000 and 2010, the number of people admitted to prison climbed 46 percent, with much of this growth driven by increases in the number of people convicted of property and drug offenses serving relatively short minimum sentences.  Over this same period, the number of people in prison grew 40 percent, from 36,602 to 51,312, and annual Department of Corrections spending increased 76 percent, from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion.  Despite significant state investments in resident programs for people on parole supervision, a 2011 study showed that recidivism has declined but remains high: nearly half of people (44 percent) released from prison were re-incarcerated within three years."

Wetzel's challenges are as steep and sharp as the razor-wired fences surrounding his institutions.  Share your thoughts on cutting prison costs by calling 1-800-729-7532 Thursday night at 8.  Or send an email now to  You also can post a comment below this article or to witf's Facebook page.  Be sure to join the conversation!

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