Associated Press
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell

Pennsylvania Rethinks Early Inmate Release Program

October 07, 2008 07:54 AM
by Anne Szustek
Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell put an injunction on early parole after a parolee fatally shot a police officer. Other states have faced a similar battle between recidivism and prison overcrowding.

Early Release Program Raises Questions over Effectiveness of Penal System

Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell announced his decision to at least temporarily curb the early release of prison inmates on Sept. 29, after recently released inmate Daniel Giddings shot Patrick McDonald, a Philadelphia police officer, the previous week, according to MarketWatch.

This incident, coupled with the May shooting of Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, allegedly at the hands of an inmate recently paroled from his robbery sentence, prompted the governor to institute a review of how the state parole board and department of corrections assessed their suitability for early release.

“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 wrote in a letter to Temple University professor John S. Goldkamp, who is heading up the review.

Rendell said that the number of firearm attacks on law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania had gone up by 82 percent between 2002 and 2007, compared to 13 percent nationwide.

Background: Overcrowded prisons leave penal systems looking for alternatives

A February study released by the Pew Center on the States revealed that as of the beginning of the year, 2,319,258 Americans—or about 1 out of every 99 adults—is in prison, making the United States the home of the world’s largest prison population.

The ratio is even higher among minorities. Department of Justice figures released earlier this year show that 1 in 15 black adults, 1 out of every 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34, and 1 in 36 Latino adults are incarcerated. This translates into blacks constituting half of the country’s prison population.

With a view to reducing the number of people behind bars, the Second Chance Act, passed by Congress in April, allocated $165 million to programs to help inmates better assimilate into society through educational programs, drug rehabilitation and help with housing and employment.

The law is also meant to lower recidivism rates. Of the roughly 650,000 prisoners released from jail each year, some two-thirds “are rearrested within three years,” said President George W. Bush upon signing the bill.

Similar actions have been taken on the state level as well, to varying degrees of success. However, prompted by budget constraints, states’ early release programs are often popping up alongside cuts to in-prison rehab initiatives.

Historical Context: Past results of early inmate release programs

Three decades of hard-line approaches to crime, including “three strikes” rules, have led to a steep increase in prison populations, draining state coffers. According to statistics cited by USA Today, in 2007 states spent more than $49 billion on penal systems, compared to $11 billion 20 years earlier.

Kentucky, according to the February Pew report, with 22,402 inmates, is the state with the highest prison population. Gov. Steve Beshear pointed out in a budget speech the same month that, despite an increase in crime rates of only 3 percent during the prior 30 years, the number of inmates in state prison systems had gone up by 600 percent, a trend paralleled nationwide.

In 2002, as Kentucky was facing an estimated budget deficit, then-Gov. Paul Patton directed the release of just under 900 incarcerated low-level offenders near the end of their terms in December of that year and January 2003.

But the program was curbed in late January when four of the early release inmates were arrested.

In Illinois, budget constraints and prison overcrowding prompted the early release of more than 9,000 inmates from 1980 to 1983. Those eligible for the program had been deemed to have had good conduct and had a maximum of one year left on their term. But some 10 percent of those released early were back in prison within six months after being arrested for other crimes. Amid outcry from then state Attorney General (and now Chicago Mayor) Richard M. Daley, other members of the state judiciary, and finally a state Supreme Court ruling, the program was scrapped in 1983.

One of Daley’s main sticking points with the program was that it apparently did not have a vetting process to determine the inmates most prone to violence. A contemporaneous program in Missouri employed a screening process along well-defined rules to release 300 inmates to free up space in state penitentiaries to house those doing time for state offenses in local jails. Lee Roy Black, the Missouri director of corrections in 1982, was then quoted as saying by United Press International, “We have a very low return rate, about 5 percent or 6 percent, with the group released last year. … Of course, it was a highly selective group.”

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