A non-political approach focused on what works is key to solving prison crisis

A non-political approach focused on what works is key to solving prison crisis
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No matter your political perspective, this is true: When someone is incarcerated, we want our criminal justice system to make sure the person leaves “the system” less likely to commit another crime than when he or she entered it.

Simple concept right? In the words of ESPN College Football Analyst Lee Corso: Not so fast my friend!

“Less likely to commit a crime,” for those of us who toil at the back end of the criminal justice system – prisons – is a simple way to say “recidivism reduction,’ the goal and crux of the proposed First Step Act, currently wending its way through congress.


And while criminal justice reform currently occupies the rarified airspace of being mutually appealing to both sides of the political spectrum at the macro level, there remains a split on whether sentencing reform – the front end of the criminal justice system – should be included as a component of the First Step Act. As written, the legislation focuses solely on reforms to back end within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

With the caveat that any improvements to the federal corrections system – even incremental improvements – should be welcomed with open arms, the factual answer is that to realize actual, quantifiable improvement, sentencing reform is essential.

It’s easy and common to embrace the notion that recidivism reduction is a back end issue and one owned solely by corrections professionals like me. This notion is dead wrong.

As a Republican appointed as Secretary of Corrections by a Republican governor (Tom Corbett) and who was asked to continue in the role by a Democratic governor (Tom Wolf), I would argue that good sentencing, and by extension, prison policy, can rise above party politics.

I believe the formula for recidivism reduction is this: Incarcerate the right people for the right amount of time and provide them with the programming they need that specifically addresses the criminogenic factors that led to them committing a crime and, finally, provide the individualized reentry support to start them on a path to good citizenship.

INCARCERATE THE RIGHT PEOPLE - Lower risk individuals who are unlikely to commit future crimes will become more likely to commit future crimes when incarcerated with higher risk individuals! We need to return to the basic premise that the punishment needs to fit the crime. Sanctions for criminal behavior should be a logical consequence of that crime and we must divorce ourselves from the notion that incarceration magically makes people less likely to sin again.

FOR THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF TIME - The formula for prison population is simply how many who come in and how long they stay. Impacting either one results in a change in population. Dr. Bruce Western from Columbia University points out the part of America’s journey to becoming the world’s most prolific incarcerator is the fact we got more punitive. Not only did we incarcerate more people (widen the net in essence), but we increased the length of stay for crimes.

Now let me be clear - for those who commit certain violent offenses - age may be the best form of rehabilitation. But blindly sentencing people to lengthy offenses, ignoring their actual risk to reoffend is both ineffective and absurdly offensive. Giving a lower risk individual who did not commit a violent offense a long sentence - knowing that it’s likely to increase their future criminal potential - is the definition of stupidity, on so many levels.

WITH PROGRAMMING THEY NEED - We cannot expect inmates to succeed if they are housed under inhumane conditions and given little educational, mental health or drug and alcohol programming. In an era when fewer inmates graduate from high school and more are battling a substance use disorder, especially addiction to opioids, effective educational programming and treatment is essential. That’s why Pennsylvania is expanding its use of Medication Assisted Treatment for those suffering from substance use disorder and embracing the Pell Grant program, expanding targeted housing units for veterans and those transitioning to the community.

Successful reentry, the idea that we are returning citizens to the community who are healthy, prepared and committed to a new beginning, is something we can all agree on.

ADDRESS THE CRIMINOGENIC FACTORS - Reentry must start when an individual enters the prison system.

A comprehensive risk and needs assessment – much like a medical doctor orders testing for patients in order to develop a diagnosis and treatment plan – is part of an individualized approach to corrections in order to reduce recidivism and maximize chance of success after release. 

The “risk principle” states simply that, given finite resources, we should prioritize our most intensive treatments and interventions towards higher risk individuals who will benefit the most.  Similar again to the emergency room analogy, the gunshot victim will take priority over the person with a cold. We should also be careful about mixing high risk prisoners with low risk prisoners in a treatment setting because the low risk individuals may become more likely to re-offend as a result. 

Once we’ve determined an individual’s risk to re-offend, a needs assessment is required in order to diagnose what issues are driving that person’s risk of re-offending.  Problems may include substance abuse, poor decision-making, low educational attainment, family concerns, etc. 

PROVIDE INDIVIDUALIZED REENTRY SUPPORT - Pennsylvania is putting one political party-line busting approach to the test in 12 of its institutions. We are one of four states now participating in an innovative nationwide program that takes an evidence-driven approach to the chronic issues of repeat offenders and recidivism.

Safe Streets Second Chances, a Koch Industries supported initiative, is using data to craft individualized reentry plans with the goal to shift the ultimate measure of success from whether individuals are punished to whether these individuals are improved, rehabilitated and capable of redemption.

Governor Tom Wolf, in kicking off Pennsylvania’s most recent criminal justice reform initiative, exemplifies the outcomes measure: less crime, fewer victims. Achieving that goal requires our system to make good decisions every step of the way - from who we incarcerate to how long, including what conditions we incarcerate them in through what supports we offer to restore them to society.

Aren’t we all owed that?

John Wetzel is the chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Follow him on Twitter @DOCSecretary and @johnewetzel.