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Elmer Smith: For repeat violent offenders, Pa. might just be getting tougher

STATE REP. Brendan Boyle is not the first freshman to herald his entry to the Legislature by introducing a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key law.

STATE REP. Brendan Boyle is not the first freshman to herald his entry to the Legislature by introducing a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key law.

Even in a state that has more than 60 mandatory-sentencing laws on the books, it's not hard to round up votes for tougher penalties.

It is easier to go to prison in Pennsylvania and harder to get out than ever. We lock up more people for more time than do all but two other states.

Prison expansion is the fastest-growing line item in the state budget. Since 1999, we've gone from 12 to 26 prisons housing 50,000 prisoners for $75 a day each. We're still 10 percent above capacity and growing.

Mostly what that gets us is prison statistics in place of public safety and tough talk in place of smart solutions. The only thing rising faster than our incarceration rate is our crime rate.

But House Bill 1567, Boyle's attempt to keep repeat violent offenders off the streets, may actually produce something more than bragging rights. Boyle's target is that lunatic fringe of persistent predators who commit most of the violent crimes in the state.

His bill would toughen Pennsylvania's existing "three strikes" law by lengthening sentences for second and third violent-crime convictions and eliminating parole for repeat violent offenders.

"Only about one half of 1 percent of all the inmates in Pennsylvania fit our definition of repeat violent offenders," Boyle said. "We're talking about a few hundred people who commit most violent crimes.

"Yes, it's going to cost us something to keep them in longer, but people who say that don't do the analysis. They don't count the cost of violent crime."

Under current law, a felon convicted a second time of one of 15 violent crimes must serve a mandatory 10-20-year sentence. A third strike leads to a 30-50-year sentence or life in prison.

Boyle's bill would add three offenses to the list of 15, including use of an illegal firearm and an assault on a police officer. Even with those additions, only a few hundred people are possible targets.

"We put in time on this one," Boyle said. "I could have introduced it in January. But I wanted to be certain that it would pass and be effective.

"I think it is smarter and more sound because of all the work we did behind the scenes."

But it's far from perfect. Eliminating parole eliminates the one level of supervision that released inmates get now.

Boyle deals with that by instituting a system of what he calls post-prison internal restrictions. How long do you think it will be before some "maxed out" former inmate argues that post-prison restrictions violate his constitutional rights?

"We've gone over this with our lawyers," Boyle said. "We're sure it will meet constitutional muster."

State Rep. Ron Waters raised an even more fundamental question about Boyle's approach.

"He believes there is less recidivism among people who max out than those who get out on parole," Waters said. "Where does he get those numbers?"

That one stumped Boyle.

"That's a good question," he conceded. "I'd like to see the metrics on that myself. But this, at least, buys us more time."

That argument went nowhere with Waters, who is a consistent critic of the prison system's woeful record for rehabilitating chronic felons.

"They call it the Department of Corrections," Waters said. "What are they correcting? If you go to an auto-repair shop, you expect to get your car repaired.

"We aren't getting to the underlying problems. We can keep them there for more years. But what happens when they get out?"

It's the right question. But Boyle's bill may be the wrong place to raise it. *

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