Pennsylvania Governor Plans Parole, Corrections Reform

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Edward G. Rendell announced plans to implement several recommendations from an independent review for improving the state’s corrections and parole system.

The review by John Goldkamp, chair of the department of criminal justice at Temple University, found the majority of the state’s parole procedures to be sound, but suggested the implementation of additional measures to ensure paroled violent offenders do not pose a threat to public safety.

The governor tasked Goldkamp earlier this year with conducting the independent review of the state probation and parole system for inmates with a history of violence. The review focused on how state agencies prepare inmates for release, decide whether to parole an inmate and supervise offenders under pre-release or parole status.

“We must recognize that most offenders other than those who are serving life or death sentences are almost certain to be released from prison at some point,” Rendell says. “We must have sound policies and procedures in place to ensure that when parolees are released, they have the support and resources they need to succeed in the community.

“Furthermore, we must have a sufficient level of supervision to ensure that anyone who demonstrates a risk to the public will be returned to incarceration,” he says.

Pennsylvania’s prison population increased from more than 36,000 inmates to almost 47,000 inmates since 1998 and the number of inmates is projected to increase to more than 57,000 by 2012, according to official projections.

The state operates 27 facilities with a total rated capacity of more than 43,000 inmates and the corrections budget for fiscal year 2008-09 topped $1.6 billion.

Officials are planning to build three new 2,000-bed prisons to reduce overcrowding and meet future population needs. However, the first facility, which is projected to cost at least $200 million, is not scheduled for completion until 2011, officials say.

The report states Pennsylvania’s current parole and probation procedures mostly follow best-practice standards that are used in several other states, but it recommended improving the assessment process for violence potential of paroled offenders, supervision policies, re-entry support, categorization of offenders and collaboration among state agencies.

Criteria to assess an offender’s violence potential should include the inmate’s current offense, prior history of violence, the use of a gun during the offense, and any other indicators of violence, according to the report.

The report recommends the state Probation and Parole Board begin processing eligible offenders under more intensive supervision policies, and that all offenders, regardless of the crime for which they are sentenced, be reviewed as a violent offender if they have a prior violent offense on record.

In accordance with the report, the board plans to start supervising all violent offenders at the maximum level for the first 90 days of parole and enforce a mandatory curfew.
Parolees will be automatically reviewed for re-entry support services to help with reintegration within a community, and after the first 90 days, they will be assessed to determine whether maximum supervision and mandatory curfew should continue.

The report offers expanded definitions of types of violent offenders to facilitate effective management strategies and recommends dividing the violent offender category into two groups based on potential public safety risk.

The first category would be made up of violent offenders who are most likely to pose a threat to public safety, and the second would include violent offenders who are less likely to threaten public safety, according to the report.

High-risk, violent offenders should be placed in special community corrections centers that are staffed with on-site parole agents who are trained to work with violent offenders, the report states.

State agencies, including the Department of Corrections and parole board, should maintain continuous collaboration throughout an offender’s incarceration and transition through release to ensure proper supervision, according to the report.

An offender should have contact with parole agents within the first 24 hours of release, followed by intensive accountability, supervision and services for the next 90 days, according to the report.

Goldkamp also stressed the importance of the community correctional system and encouraged a review of community corrections centers to ensure their effectiveness and impact upon offenders. The report recommends that offices of specially trained parole agents be placed in community corrections centers.

“The interim measures taken by the parole board will ensure a higher level of supervision for paroled violent offenders, but I agree with Dr. Goldkamp’s assessment that we must do a better job of identifying those offenders who are a high-risk for committing another offense,” Rendell says.