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WITH A STAGGERING prison population that keeps rising in number and costs, the time for reforming the state and city's overburdened judicial system is now.

Many have recognized this, including the probation and parole officers union; City Council; the district attorney's office; the Institute for the Study of Civic Values; the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.

Without a champion in a powerful position to initiate something, though, the calls for change are little more than background noise; every now and then the volume gets loud - usually around a public hearing or a miscarriage of justice - but quickly returns to a dull murmur.

The state and city judicial mechanisms grind on: prisoners are warehoused; probation officers are overworked; former inmates are released into the neighborhood without coping skills, counseling or jobs.

And the city becomes less safe.

But it appears a legislative champion has stepped forward. State House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, the Republican from Northeast Philly, is compiling a package of prison-reform bills that could initiate great change in the state's archaic justice system. They include:

* Taking violent offenders out of county jails and

moving them to state facilities, where they can get improved treatment for drug, alcohol or anger issues.

* Using video conferencing to reduce the costly,

time-consuming and dangerous transport of prisoners to hearings.

* Establishing formal probation and parole guide-


* Offering sentencing alternatives for nonviolent


It's an effort to streamline the system, get prisoners the help they need, and ease the burden on county facilities. O'Brien's office is working out the details, and will soon seek co-sponsors for the bills.

Many of these suggestions have been heard before. What gives us optimism is that O'Brien, as House speaker, has a powerful pulpit. That improves the chances for the bills' exposure to honest debate and compromise, and ultimate passage.

The separate cries of justice-system reform will now be heard in one powerful voice. The Legislature needs to listen. *