Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Scott Thornsley Shares His Career Path and Views on the State of our Correction Systems

An experienced state government executive and now Professor and Criminal Justice Department Chair discusses his two distinct careers, his approach as a teacher and the outlook of a stressed prison system. We talked with Dr. Scott Thornsley, Associate Professor & Chair of the Criminal Justice Administration at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania.

How did you get into the criminal justice field and how has your career evolved from Corrections to Professor?
 

I spent 19 years in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections before entering the academic community. I was the Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs. Essentially, I was a lobbyist appointed by the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office and acted as a liaison with the state prison system and Pennsylvania General Assembly. I was a senior level executive, and represented the Governor’s Office and state Department of Corrections prison on legislative issues. I never actually worked in any prisons directly. I did the analysis on the bills, although the budget office and legal staffs were tapped as needed. I would build relationships and build momentum around this legislation. All my undertakings were policy related issues. For example, I orchestrated the change in the manner of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. For a decade, I worked on efforts to release prisoners early for undertaking efforts in education, vocation and treatment programs. I was also unsuccessful in getting private sector prison industries to be able to operate within our state prisons. I believe Oregon and other states did this with Federal support. The goal was to provide the inmates with a real life work experience for their resumes — it is a stabilizing influence as inmates with those jobs get paid a bit better and they don’t want to lose that position.

Stepping back, I started in undergrad in political science and criminal justice.  I took an internship at a prison in Pennsylvania, and was exposed to policy.  I really enjoyed prison policy and this aspect of criminal justice.  When I graduated in ‘73 from Mansfield State College, I immediately went to Sam Houston University and studied Corrections for graduate work.  I then went to work in Planning and Research for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and then eventually moved to the lobbyist position.

What is your proudest moment in your career?
 

Coincidentally, that happened two days ago. Occasionally starting in the 80’s and through today, I have off and on represented life-sentenced inmates with no possibility of parole that were seeking a sentence reduction or clemency. I represented one inmate in ‘86, ‘05 and twice this year on his application to the State Board of Pardons. On December 14th the Board of Pardons recommended to the Governor that he granted him a pardon this week. The recommendation that he receive a commutation of his life-sentence is sitting on the Governor’s desk and it appears it will be approved. I really believe he deserves a second chance and have worked on this for 24 years.

In 1986, I first represented him before the Board of Pardons but his request for a commutation of his life-sentence was denied. I lost touch with the inmate after he was transferred after the 1989 prison riot at Camp Hill. In 2002, he saw me on the news, and contacted me to represent him again. When I represented him in 2005, his application was denied for a second time, but he received a vote of 4-1 from the Board of Pardons. But by then, almost all of the procedures on the Board of Pardons were revised and it was extremely unlikely that any life-sentenced inmate would ever receive a commutation of their life sentence. In the spring of 2010 his new application came up for a public hearing, and he had his third public hearing before the Board of Pardons in June. In June the Board of Pardons voted to hold his request “held under advisement” because he was a litigant in a federal lawsuit seeking relief against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The inmate’s application was held under advisement until December 14th, when I once again publicly spoke to the Board, and at that time the Board, by a vote of 4-0, recommended that his life-without-parole sentence be commuted to life-on-parole supervision, after he serves one year in a half-way house. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell publicly commuted his sentence on December 30th. This does provide some hope for inmates who can leverage this process. He will have a second chance at age 56. I felt his behavior suggested he deserved it.


How did you move into teaching and what is your approach?

While I was still working for the Department of Corrections, I started my criminal justice doctorate degree at Penn State and continued to do so for six years, and finished in 1995. In 1995 when a new governor was sworn into office, I was replaced by a political appointee and lost my job of 19 years. But now I believe that was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally and personally. In 1996, I took a position teaching at Troy State in Alabama, and really enjoyed it.

When I started teaching, I noted that many professors lacked real world experience in any criminal justice agency. I do think the kids appreciate the real-world experience, and I can bring this to the classroom. It is important to balance the theory and coursework with real world experience — students understand this. I invite many speakers with real world experience into my classroom , and most recently had the Secretary of the Board of Pardons come to Mansfield for the fourth time.

What I do want to stress to students is that the basic skills such as writing are critically important. Students should also network with others in their criminal justice program, as they may go on to become practitioners, who will work together.


What have been the biggest changes in the Corrections field in the last 20 years and what do you see as challenges or changes in the next 5 years?

The biggest changes have been the number of inmates coming into the system. A few years ago Pennsylvania had 30,000 inmates, and that population is now approaching 52,000. For every dollar going to support an inmate, it is taken from schools, elderly, etc. And health care costs are impacting the prisons just like they are elsewhere. Just last week, there was news on how California cannot afford to support its 147,000 inmates due to medical and mental health costs, and this is despite a significant reduction there in their inmate population. Not that it is not easy to reduce inmate populations due to fear — often on the part of politicians for letting someone go who does something bad later. This creates a very complex issue.

How did California reduce its inmate population?

They have accelerated release for less dangerous offenders. But they have first had to do a massive building program to house the current prison population.

What is driving this increase in prison population?

 
Mandatory sentences are driving the inmate population growth. There is always going to be some “crime of the week” that gains notoriety, and then trickles to the state legislature where mandatory sentences are then enacted. That drives a lot of inmate population growth. For example in Pennsylvania, from 1987-1995, there were no mandatory sentences enacted into law (this coincided with the term of one Governor). Over the subsequent 8-10 years, over 100 mandatory sentences were enacted into law. If you watch, the next likely areas for mandatory sentencing may be around bullying and cyber bullying.

But, in the next 5 years something will have to give due to the budgetary challenges. If you look at some states, they are reviewing the death penalty due to cost. Some states are limiting the inmate population. The cost of incarceration will be the primary factor for lawmakers to wake up and make changes — non-violent crime sentences will be reduced. Corrections is always among the biggest budget items in a state usually just after welfare. If you reduce the prison population, you reduce the budget deficit.

Is our Corrections systems a failure?  What would you point to as best practices in the field either in the US or abroad and why?

The national prison system is not failing. But they are getting a one-two punch. In California, they are not pursuing the best policies. Some states are doing well like New York and Michigan by reducing population. In Pennsylvania, prisons are so overcrowded that they had to send 2,000 inmates outside the state. 1,000 inmates are now housed in a fairly new facility in a Michigan that was slotted to close. It did make those people in that Michigan town pleased due to the jobs retained. In any case, we will be forced to make better policy decisions — releasing prisoners versus taking services away from constituents. So states that address the issue first will benefit from housing inmates from states that lag.

How do you prepare your students for a career in the criminal justice field?

You have them read the stories. They can track the policies being created as being driven by news media. I ask them for the ramifications of these issues. I want to prepare them to be able to discuss these issues in their eventual jobs. Note that I do have them use Google Alerts for the keywords “prison”, “probation”, “parole” and “death sentence”.

My goal is to get them to think where they want to be not at 22 but at 42. So, I bring these types of graduates in to speak to the students so they can hear from the source on various criminal justice career paths. It is a competitive world. Of course we give the students a solid liberal arts education, with a good dose of criminal justice course work and an understanding of how agencies work. The goal is to get them to think independently and critically. I hope the students appreciate it a couple years after leaving here.

Is there any advice you would give to someone who wanted to be in this field?

You have to be willing to relocate. You have to move to the opportunities. There are more opportunities in the bigger organizations. They need to put their best personal foot forward by working hard and being diligent. You have to learn how to get along with people even when it isn’t easy. You have to move with the group but find some way to stand out. And you just have to be a solid writer and communicator.

Have you seen technology and the Internet change your approach to law enforcement in the last decade?

There are tremendous changes as I can see all kinds of information on crime stats, budgets and so much more from online sources. It wasn’t that long ago those crime stats had to be sent to the state in paper form, and they were then not released for fifteen months. So, today the trends can be seen much more quickly. Even on my Department page, I can show calendar of events, speakers, etc. I can provide my students so much more depth of information on a topic. When I lecture, I can place links in the PowerPoint, and those are additional launching points to explore a topic in more depth.

Are there any great things about your area you would like to share with our readers about Mansfield University?

We are a small regional university in a rural center. Many people and speakers do like to come here due to the quaint borough events, outdoor activities and fall foliage. At a small school, students can get direct interaction with the professors — I just had a student email me to ask how my the Board of Pardons case was going, for example. My department has 300 majors in a school with a population of 3,500 of undergraduate and graduate students.