- Associated Press - Thursday, May 25, 2017

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s bid to merge the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole is hitting another wall of resistance, with House members, prosecutors and even two parole board members criticizing the bill during a Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.

The crux of the opposition revolves around whether prison officials would have too much power over who should get paroled and when parole violators must go back to prison, without an independent agency making those decisions.

Merging the agencies has received approval from the state Senate, which passed legislation Wednesday, as part of a larger effort designed to help newly released inmates succeed once they are released. Similar legislation passed by the Senate died in the House last year.

In often blunt talk, committee members challenged Wolf’s corrections secretary, John Wetzel, and the chairman of the parole board, Leo Dunn, over their improved recidivism statistics and whether parole decisions would truly be independent of the jailers in a merged agency.

“It’s hard to have faith in a lot of this,” said Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, a former county and federal prosecutor.

They also questioned why the two agencies couldn’t work together but remain independent, criticism that was buttressed by testimony from two parole board members, county prosecutors and a parole agents’ union representative.

“This proposed merger of the parole board into the Department of Corrections is going to drastically change the criminal justice system in the commonwealth,” warned Craig McKay, a former parole board member who is now an assistant district attorney in Washington County.

Wetzel and Dunn insisted that the Senate bill ensures parole decisions would remain independent. They also said the closer collaboration could save millions of dollars in administrative costs and streamline efforts to help parolees succeed outside of prison, resulting in lower prison populations.

Forty states have combined parole and prison systems, Wetzel said, including eight of 10 states that have lower crime rates than Pennsylvania.

Despite Judiciary Committee opposition, the measure could get swept into budget season legislation.

The Wolf administration has put a premium on improving recidivism rates and saving money, as the state faces a projected $3 billion deficit in this fiscal year and the one that will begin July 1.

Republican-penned budget legislation that passed the House in April even showed the two agencies’ budgets as merged. Still, the budget legislation, now pending in the Senate, called for deep cutbacks in prisons and parole that Dunn warned would “decimate parole supervision” after Wolf’s administration has worked to shore up the long-understaffed ranks of parole agents.

In the last five years, the state inmate population has shrunk, in part because of a four-year-old law that limits the length of a prison stay for parole violators, while parolee ranks have grown steadily and quickly.

The budget implications of limiting prison stays for parole violators are enormous. The average cost of a day on parole is about a tenth of the cost of a day in prison, corrections officials say.

Parole officials say they are getting better results by providing parolees with more services in the community, such as substance abuse counseling, rather than jailing technical parole violators. Still, some committee members questioned whether the parole board is letting problem parolees remain on the streets at risk to public safety.

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