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Prisons chief: Parole ban worsened inmate crowding

A two-month moratorium on parole last year compounded the prison overcrowding that is expected to force hundreds of Pennsylvania inmates to be boarded in other states, state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said Monday as he urged lawmakers to take steps to slow the growth of the prison population.
/ Source: PhillyBurbs.com

A two-month moratorium on parole last year compounded the prison overcrowding that is expected to force hundreds of Pennsylvania inmates to be boarded in other states, state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said Monday as he urged lawmakers to take steps to slow the growth of the prison population.At a hearing before a panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Beard advocated stepping up efforts to divert non-violent offenders into non-prison settings and reducing the number of parolees who are sent back to prison for minor "technical" violations.Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, the commitee chairman who presided over Monday's hearing, said it makes sense to reserve prisons for the most dangerous offenders, who need to be separated from society, and develop more construcive options for non-violent criminals."Being smart on crime is not soft on crime," said Greenleaf, a leading prison-reform advocate in the Legislature.Beard said the parole rate dropped in response to a pair of highly publicized shooting deaths of Philadelphia police officers in 2008 _ the first involving an inmate who escaped from a halfway house, the second involving a parolee who was subsequently shot and killed by police.The parole rate plummeted _ and the prison population soared _ after Gov. Ed Rendell imposed the statewide moratorium following the second shooting and the state parole board tightened its procedures for evaluating offenders' potential for committing violence after their release.The parole rate has rebounded since. Fifty-five percent of eligible inmates were paroled from July through September, said board spokeswoman Sherry Tate.But the prison population of more than 51,000 inmates exceeds its capacity by 1,800 _ instead of the flat growth the Corrections Department projected before the moratorium. Despite plans to add 8,000 beds by 2013, Beard said boarding inmates out of state is likely to continue in the long term unless changes are made."The fact is that we tend, as a society, to both overreact and look for someone to blame when these events occur. We also tend to revert to the 'get tough on crime' approach to criminals, and our initial response is the same for both violent offenders and less serious drug/property offenders," he said in prepared remarks."This approach often does not make for good public policy and can provide for unintended results," he said.Beard said nonviolent offenders, mostly those convicted of property and drug crimes, should be diverted to treatment programs and other prison alternatives whenever possible. Such offenders account for 55 percent of the growth in recent prison admissions, compared with only 2 percent for violent offenders, he said.Beard and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania also argued that parolees who commit "technical" violations should be punished by means other than being returned to prison."Re-incarceration is not the answer for missing an appointment," said the group's legislative director, Andy Hoover.The Corrections Department plans to board as many as 2,000 inmates outside of Pennsylvania starting early next year, said spokeswoman Sue McNaughton.It has reached out to six states _ Michigan, Virginia, Nevada, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota _ as potential partners, but no decisions have been made, she said.