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Editorial: Parole

A system failure


A top-to-bottom review of Pennsylvania's parole system ordered by Gov. Rendell after a police murder concluded that the procedures for releasing violent offenders are pretty sound and safe.

The findings disappointed the finger-pointers who demanded a system overhaul after Philadelphia police Sgt. Patrick McDonald was killed in a gun battle with a recently paroled felon.

Critics were looking for someone to blame, but the consultant, John S. Goldkamp, a nationally known incarceration expert, concluded that "nobody fell asleep at the wheel."

That doesn't mean that the prison system is perfect. Reforming the system must remain a priority and cannot end with the report.

Goldkamp, chairman of Temple University's department of criminal justice, said parole officials were not at fault in releasing Daniel Giddings, as some had charged.

More important, he found that Pennsylvania was in line with other states in how it paroles violent offenders, and that "public safety was being sufficiently attended to."

Based on the report, Rendell last week lifted a two-month moratorium on paroling violent offenders and acknowledged that the state must not become complacent in its reform efforts.

During the two-month moratorium, the state's prison population grew from 46,883 to more than 48,000.

Rendell acted appropriately in lifting the moratorium, which was a bad idea from the beginning. It was never the solution to problems in the entire corrections system that run deeper.

What also isn't needed are attacks on judges for being too lenient. Longer prison sentences and more prisons won't fix the system, either.

Where Goldkamp's report fell short was fully addressing the bigger lesson at issue: Even violent criminals eventually get released. Giddings was paroled after serving 10 years of a 12-year sentence. Five weeks later, he killed McDonald. Police shot and killed Giddings as he attempted to flee.

That episode shows that prisons must do a better job of rehabilitating inmates to minimize the chance that they will commit crimes upon release. Parolees also must be closely monitored once released.

Beyond that, the state must properly address what's happening inside dysfunctional and overcrowded prisons, where the violent often become more violent.

As part of his report, Goldkamp recommended that the state classify violent offenders into two categories - those most likely to commit other offenses and those less likely to pose risks to the public. Past offenses and whether a gun was used in their crimes should be taken into account.

Those are steps in the right direction. The state has begun putting in place a Goldkamp recommendation for more intensive supervision policies. All violent offenders will be more closely supervised for the first 90 days of parole and will face a mandatory curfew.

Additional support services will be made available to help parolees adjust to life outside of prison. Help finding a job could reduce the need to resort to committing crimes.

Goldkamp's report should be a blueprint to help Pennsylvania make desperately needed changes in the prisons to rehabilitate inmates and protect society.