(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers wanted to know this week how the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary could justify seeking more for its annual budget at a time when overall inmate populations are dropping.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is asking for a 2.5 percent increase, and during Wednesday’s budget hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, he said it’s needed to keep up increased costs due to population shifts despite reduced inmate numbers.
“My question to you as I look at your appropriations is, how do you justify dropping population on record levels year over year and closing facilities to save money and yet substantial cost increases in your annual budget,” said Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington.
Wetzel defended his increases as “relatively low” historically, adding that costs are higher due to various lawsuits and increased staffing services for the growing number of mentally challenged, elderly and gang member inmates.
The aging population has been growing 2 percent annually and now comprises a quarter of the state’s prison population, while those with mental health issues have been growing over the past 10 years and now make up a third of the population. Both groups require additional medical and other resources that now take a larger part of the budget.
“Not to mention pension and benefits,” he said. “When you look at the context of population, we need staff. It’s a very complicated situation.”
If not for the pandemic, Wetzel said there may have been another prison closure, which may have brought costs down.
“We’ve closed prisons and it hasn’t saved us any money at all,” O’Neal countered.
O’Neal argued that the corrections system continues to be a financial drain on the commonwealth, and the answer isn’t to just close prisons down and release everyone to the public.
“We need to find a better way to fiscally manage this process, and if closing prisons is a way to do that, we need to absolutely ensure that it is saving us money,” he said.