The United States has “overused incarceration” as a response to crime but consensus is lacking on how to reduce the numbers significantly, says Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. Wetzel, who runs one of the nation’s largest prison systems, told a panel on Friday in Philadelphia at the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference that his state has managed to reduce the prison count by about 1,200 in the last few years. He acknowledged that dealing with inmates who are mentally ill is one of his greatest challenges. About one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s prisoners have some kind of mental illness, meaning that the state is responsible for treating about 12,000 people behind bars, Wetzel said. He agreed that prison authorities had subjected too many mentally-ill inmates to solitary confinement, often making their problems worse.
In January, Pennsylvania settled a lawsuit by agreeing to stop putting seriously mentally ill inmates in solitary. Another speaker on Friday, Philadelphia civil-rights lawyer and law professor David Rudovsky, seemed dubious that the U.S. would soon reduce what he termed the “prison-industrial complex,” noting that the jobs of many prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, and corrections system employees depend on a large corrections system. More than 2 million people are behind bars around the nation, making the U.S. the world’s incarceration leader. Eileen Sullivan of the Associated Press discussed stories she had written this year on the growing use of “risk assessment” tools by corrections authorities to help decide which prisoners and pre-trial defendants should be released, urging journalists to examine how these systems are being used. Julie Brown of the Miami Herald described her reporting on “horrific” conditions in some Florida prisons, saying she was surprised at the high level of public interest in reporting on how the state is housing its more than 100,000 inmates. The panel was organized by Criminal Justice Journalists, the co-publisher of Crime & Justice News.