Essential Pittsburgh
7:06 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

State Corrections Secretary Says When Sentencing, We Need to Consider the Offender

John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Credit Heather McClain / 90.5 WESA

John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, is responsible for the state prison system, from inmates, to employees, to a budget of nearly $2 billion. And he's trying to take a holistic approach to the corrections system.

With more than 20 years of experience in the corrections industry, he's part of a sentencing commission that's developing tools to help trial judges better assess the risks and needs of offenders.

He says the key to that assessment is looking at the root causes of crime.

"Based on the number of prior arrests, the age of the offender, based on a bunch of other factors, we can predict the likelihood that the individual will commit another crime."

By looking at these "criminogenic needs," or needs that lead to crime, and by using cognitive therapy and other programming, Wetzel says offenders can learn to make better decisions, think differently and reduce their likelihood to commit future crimes.

He points out that criminogenic needs have not been part of the corrections system historically.

"When people hear about that they go 'Well this is not about the criminal.' Well guess what," Says Wetzel "If that criminal gets out, older, angrier and likely to commit another crime, and moves in next to you, whose problem is it now? And that's what we forget. I have 51,000 people incarcerated today. Nintey-five percent of them will get out, and they're coming soon to a neighborhood near you. So we really have to ask ourselves, what do we want out of our corrections system?" 

Based the alarming statistic that 1 out of every 15 black men in Pennsylvania between the ages of 20 and 32 are in state prison, Wetzel says young men of color are of particular concern to the Department of Corrections.

In late April, the state corrections system, businesses, and community groups will announce an initiative to address young men of color in Pennsylvania and the high level of incarceration. We will follow up with more details as they're announced.