Philosophical differences color discussions on Pa. DOC budget

     Signs notify visitors of regulations at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said Thursday it will close the Pittsburgh State Prison to save money at a time when inmate numbers are dropping and the state faces a huge budget deficit, but has opted against an earlier plan to also shut down a second facility. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

    Signs notify visitors of regulations at the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's administration said Thursday it will close the Pittsburgh State Prison to save money at a time when inmate numbers are dropping and the state faces a huge budget deficit, but has opted against an earlier plan to also shut down a second facility. (Keith Srakocic/AP Photo)

    The Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole are two of the Pennsylvania entities near the center of the Wolf administration’s cost-cutting efforts.

    But throughout budget hearings, lawmakers have been voicing concerns that the proposed measures will endanger the state.

    One of the most drastic moves to lower corrections spending is the planned closure of Pennsylvania’s oldest prison, SCI Pittsburgh.

    Corrections Secretary John Wetzel anticipated that will save a little over $80 million. The closure is only possible because prison populations are declining as the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and ’90s give way to new sentencing guidelines.

    Wetzel said he supports getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent criminals — pointing to the success the state’s seen since largely axing minimums for drug crimes.

    “In Pennsylvania in 2013, drug mandatories were essentially eliminated by the Supreme Court,” he noted. “Since that time we’ve seen a significant population reduction. But we’ve also seen a crime reduction. Right here in Harrisburg, local officials were touting this.”

    But his philosophy has clashed with that of lawmakers — particularly Republicans, such as Allegheny County’s Randy Vulakovich.

    Vulakovich pointedly questioned Wetzel on whether he supported mandatory minimums for various crimes.

    Asked if he’d back them for drug deal cases in which the defendant is in possession of a firearm, Wetzel said, in general, no.

    Vulakovich — and others — remained skeptical, though they praised Wetzel for his data-driven approach.

    He said there is a reason tough sentencing was common for years: it bore results.

    In addition to shortening some sentences, Wetzel said he is working to close some of the state’s halfway houses.

    The facilities are designed to give support to inmates following their release, but Wetzel they often make things worse.

    He wants to shift to an outpatient model for lower-risk parolees and said the state is using a results-based approach to decide which facilities to shutter.

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