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Pennsylvania Prison Crowding, Parole Crisis Result in New Laws, Parole Suspension

by Matt Clarke

On September 29, 2008, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell ordered a moratorium on paroles. Three weeks later he lifted the suspension of paroles for non-violent offenders, and the moratorium was completely withdrawn last December. These are the latest developments in a crisis caused by overcrowding in Pennsylvania’s prison system, budgetary concerns, and a series of violent crimes committed by parolees.

The catalyst for the moratorium on paroles was the murder of Philadelphia police officer Patrick McDonald, who was shot by parolee Daniel Giddings on September 24, 2008. The fatal shooting followed the May 2008 murder of police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski by three parolees who had just robbed a bank. According to police union officials, five of the nine Philadelphia officers shot in the past year were shot by parolees.

“Heartbreaking losses such as these have shed light on the need to thoroughly review the process by which Pennsylvania paroles violent offenders,” Gov. Rendell wrote in a letter to Temple University criminal justice department chairman John S. Goldkamp, who was appointed to head a review of the state’s parole procedures.

“We all understand it was the action of individual criminals that caused these deaths, however, I need to know that we are doing everything we can to reduce the possibility of future recurrences.” Rendell announced a suspension of all paroles, but lifted the suspension for non-violent prisoners three weeks later on Goldkamp’s recommendation.

Police officials and union members were angered at Giddings’ release on parole; he was serving a 6-to-12 year sentence for aggravated assault and robbery. Parole officials noted that he had already served ten of the twelve years and previously had been denied parole due to poor behavior in prison. Giddings’ behavior had improved between his previous denial of parole and the decision to grant him parole. Police also criticized judges they claimed were handing down short sentences, including the judge who had sentenced Giddings.

Ironically, Gov. Rendell’s moratorium on paroles was imposed just four days after he approved a package of bills that reformed the parole process and made it possible to release certain non-violent prisoners earlier. The new statutes give non-violent prisoners an option for early release if they complete education and on-the-job training programs while exhibiting good behavior; allow the early release of some terminally ill prisoners; and require prisoners with sentences of more than two years to be transferred to state prisons instead of staying at local jails.

Dr. Goldkamp’s report largely vindicated the state’s existing parole policies. The report recommended placing high-risk violent offenders in community corrections programs after they are paroled, and found that parole officers should work to assist released prisoners with their reintegration into society.

“We need to be predicting as well as we can,” Dr. Goldkamp said, referring to parole release decisions. “But everybody in criminal justice and criminology knows that prediction is useful but imperfect.”?The suspension of paroles was completely lifted on December 1, 2008, but a clear message had been sent to parole officials. While paroles resumed, the parole approval rate of 62% in fiscal year 2008 plummeted to 46% by February 2009. With fewer prisoners being paroled, the state’s prison population is expected to increase accordingly.

Pennsylvania’s prison system has 27 facilities that hold 47,000 prisoners, with an annual budget of around $1.7 billion. The current population exceeds the prison system’s capacity of 43,300 prisoners by 8%.

The state plans to build four new prisons to generate additional bed space. The first facility, on the grounds of SCI Rockview in Centre County, will not be completed until at least 2011. The second will be built somewhere in Fayette County and the sites for the third and fourth have not yet been selected.

Clearly, new prison construction will not solve Pennsylvania’s prison overcrowding crisis in the near future. Nor is building more prisons a viable long term solution, as prison populations habitually expand to fill – and then exceed – available bed space.

Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Patriot-News, The Bulletin

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