The Aleph Institute, an organization whose mission centers on working with incarcerated populations across the country and maintains a regional headquarters in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, hosted an Oct. 13 symposium on the challenges prisoners face with recidivism and reintegration.
“As Jews, we have a responsibility to help other people,” said Marty Davis, chair of the Institute. “We don’t always succeed, but we all try.”
Held in the ballroom at Congregation Beth Shalom, just a block from Aleph’s Beacon Street office, the evening event saw a litany of speakers discuss the problems facing not just the incarcerated, but the corrections system at large.
“When you send the right people to a state prison, that’s good public safety. When you send everyone to prison, it’s unnecessary and expensive,” Pennsylvania State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “We need to look at how we can create a system where people can get well.”
Wetzel’s department employs 16,000 people and manages 51,000 inmates. It does so with an annual budget of just under $2 billion, despite repeatedly slashed allotments and poor leadership from both sides of the aisle.
“Republicans and Democrats alike have taken turns screwing up our corrections systems,” he said. “Our population has gone significantly up. I wish I could tell you that our incomes have done the same, but I can’t. What’s brought everybody to the table and what’s brought focus to it is that we’re broke.”
Both Wetzel and Carnegie Mellon professor Alfred Blumstein, a nationally recognized expert on crime and corrections, fault flaws in the country’s approach to corrections and crime reduction policy as the primary reason for swelling prison populations.
Blumstein cited that the country’s War on Drugs has proven a disaster for its corrections systems.
“As you look at the crimes that were contributing to that growth, one which grew by a factor of 10 was drug offenders,” Blumstein said, adding that prison populations are exacerbated by the fact that a majority of parole violators who are re-incarcerated are done so for drug offenses. “We’ve got to rethink the drug issue. Incarceration is not an incredibly effective means of dealing with addiction.”
Similarly, he said, mental illness is another problem maligned by the criminal code.
“Twenty percent of the people in state prisons are certifiably mentally ill. That number is larger in local jails. So between substance abuse and mental illness, these are incarcerations for career criminals,” he noted.
Both men stressed the urgent need for change, for as prison populations swell and corrections budgets are slashed, the current model is unsustainable.
“We’ve got to stop putting scarlet letters on everybody,” Wetzel said. “When it comes to criminal justice, we paint with a broad brush. We need to continue to work on developing a system that’s more precise. We have a small window here. We have an opportunity. If we’re not bold and courageous enough to act on facts instead of feeling, we’re going to miss that opportunity.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)