America Can Afford Decent Corrections Systems. Why Aren’t We Getting Them?

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Photo by Elentir via Flickr

John Wetzel

John Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

To read about John Wetzel, the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC), one might think he is the August Vollmer of prison management.

Vollmer, who established the first degree-granting program in police science at the University of California in the early years of the 20th century, was called the “father of modern American policing.”

Wetzel has blazed a similar path in the development of corrections as a profession with his emphasis on improved data collection and research.

Curiously, Wetzel never made it a secret that he was not a data expert. That was Kristofer “Bret” Bucklen, his director of the Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics, who has become mired in controversy over the quality of his research. Defenders of both Wetzel and Bucklen, however, argue that even bad data is better than no data at all.

Maybe that was once true in an era when expectations about the ability of the nation’s corrections agencies were never high.  But it’s time to set our sights higher.

Here’s how. Every corrections secretary should make the creation of a committed data bureau a top priority. Employees of these bureaus should be held to academic-level standards, with safeguards to assure transparency and validity of the research.

Ideally, the bureau director will have a respected doctorate— our universities churn out hundreds if not thousands of new doctorates in criminal justice and criminology each year. We should expect the same excellence in our corrections leaders as Vollmer envisioned for police managers.

Just as importantly, like other state law enforcement employees, bureau staff should be subject to policies that strictly prohibit hateful speech directed toward marginalized groups, with discipline up to termination as an option.

Can states afford that level of excellence?

It’s not as expensive as you might think. For a prison system the size of Pennsylvania’s, with a budget of over $2 billion, according to Vera Institute of Justice figures for 2012, adding a team of data experts is a comparatively small drop in the budget. Vera’s summary report on the “Price of Prisons” for that year shows similar economies of scale are possible for other states.

According to PennWATCH, a state website that tracks employee salaries, Bucklen makes $130,504 a year. Even assuming his bureau has 20 employees all paid his same salary, that would be $2.6 million ― about a tenth of one percent of the total 2012 expenditure.

Yet the benefits for this comparatively tiny line item are many.

PADOC’s commitment to better data has already made Wetzel a hot commodity. And it has significantly improved the image of correctional leaders committed to innovative thinking.

Wetzel is now on the lecture circuit along with corporate leaders and pro sports stars, He  is acknowledged as one of the nation’s thought leaders by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he is a member of the Executive Session on Community Corrections.

Good research and data transparency are also a powerful weapon in the increasingly bitter debate over the future of corrections, where abolitionism has picked up more traction.

So any cost-benefit analysis would show the benefit of making data collection a more fundamental component of corrections.

Other law enforcement agencies have come to that conclusion. For example, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has a committed research department (the DATA Lab) led by Oren Gur, who holds a Ph.D. in Criminology from the University of Chicago. The DATA Lab hosts a public dashboard that contains a wealth of data on the job the DA’s office is doing.

According to a 2020 press release, the DA’s office received $4.5 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Arnold Ventures.

There is no doubt that the men and women working in America’s correctional agencies are still struggling, like the late Rodney Dangerfield, to get respect.

“Historically, correctional officers have been viewed as ‘guards,’ occupying isolated and misunderstood positions in prisons and jails,” then-President Ronald Reagan said when he proclaimed the first week of May as Corrections Week in 1984.

Reagan said correctional staff get little recognition for the multiple roles they are expected to fill, as custodians, supervisors and counselors.

Little has changed. Arguably, things are getting worse, as corrections staff—facing the burdens of COVID, staff shortages, poor working conditions, and low pay, have quit in “droves” over the past year, according to a recent report from The Marshal Project.

The best way to gain more respect is to show that people who work in corrections are using empirically verified best practices to keep prisons safe and reduce recidivism.

Pennsylvania shows the road forward.  Its improvements should not just be considered a goal that other systems should work towards, but the bare minimum for any corrections system operating in the U.S. today.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

For additional reading: See reports and videos from the November 3-4, 2021 conference, “Rethinking the American Way of Punishment” organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and Arnold Ventures.

Rory Fleming is an attorney and writer who has worked for various criminal justice organizations, including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project, and the National Network for Safe Communities. He writes from Philadelphia.

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