Cause and effect
Like just about every other Cabinet member and row officer, state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel has gone to the Legislature, hat in hand, looking for more money for his department. Unlike the others, however, Mr. Wetzel confronted the lawmakers head-on about their own roles in exorbitant corrections costs.
At a House budget hearing, Mr. Wetzel asked for an additional $20 million for this year's budget and an additional $77 million for next year's corrections budget, which already is projected at more than $2 billion.
Some legislators objected but Mr. Wetzel, whose reputation for candor and competence is well-earned, reminded the lawmakers that they have passed 23 bills into law over the last year with the potential to increase the prison population, while failing to pass laws to help reduce crime and incarceration costs.
"You say you want change, but you keep passing the same bills," Mr Wetzel said. "You pass these bills, don't be surprised when the budget goes up."
Corrections policy should mandate punishment proportional to the crime, and focus on rehabilitation to reduce recidivism, Mr. Wetzel said.
"You can't say that about some of our current laws and corrections policies," he testified.
Speaking later to reporters, Mr. Wetzel said the problem "isn't a right-wing or a left-wing thing ... Republicans and Democrats have both taken turns screwing up the system."
Every year, the secretary said, he informs legislators of current corrections policy and law, "and then they forget about it until the next year when they want to scold me about the budget."
The Legislature has taken valuable steps to diminish incarceration of low-level non-violent offenders. That's why the prison population grew by 328 rather than the originally projected 3,562.
Lawmakers must heed Mr. Wetzel and focus further on addiction and mental health treatment, early parole for non-violent offenders and community re-entry programs to arrest the growth in the prison population and its costs.