Having grown up in Myerstown, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel sees Lebanon County as his home.
He’d love to retire to the area someday, maybe even coach football again, but for now he’s got work to do.
Today he’s a national figure in the field of corrections. Wetzel has served as Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections since January 2011, when he was appointed by Governor Tom Corbett. Wetzel was reappointed by Governor Tom Wolf in January 2015.
“Our job isn’t just care, custody, and control of who the judges send to us,” explained Wetzel when LebTown spoke with him earlier this month. “Our job is to improve their trajectory.”
Wetzel’s approach has been heralded since his Franklin County days, where he served as warden of the Franklin County Jail and oversaw a 20% reduction in prisoners with a simultaneous drop in the crime rate.
It comes down to understanding the root cause of the crime, and trying to get people out of the system for good. Wetzel sees criminal justice reform as the understanding that the other end of the crack in any other social system is a jail or prison. “Our role is to have people leave prison better than when they came in,” he said. “But the reality is we can map how people come to prison.”
Education is high among the reasons; Wetzel notes that more than a third of inmates don’t have a high school diploma. Mental health is another area where reductions in institutional interventions elsewhere have led to a state prison system with a third of prisoners on the mental health roster.
“Government works best when it spends money once,” he said. “The goal should be to get someone out of the system altogether.”
To achieve these goals, Wetzel finds himself drawing on experiences he’s had as an athlete and coach. “Corrections is one of the few places you get the team concept,” he explained of the inherent us vs. them mentality that comes when you are outnumbered by people who don’t want to be there. “It requires teamwork to get the job done.”