Mandatory terms really are a solution

I expect left-of-center editorial positions from The Philadelphia Inquirer, but they aren’t usually too bad when it comes to public safety. But one in this morning’s Inquirer is enough, in Glenn Beck’s formulation, to make your head explode:

Parole in Pennsylvania: Mandatory terms are not a solution¹


Gov. Rendell wants to keep repeat violent offenders behind bars longer to fix the state’s parole system. But that’s an old answer to a deeply rooted problem that demands a new approach that actually works.

Works? When the editors say that we need a new approach that actually works, the obvious — and unanswered — question is: works to do what?

If the goal is rehabilitation, it’s clear that no, prison doesn’t work all that well. But if the goal is to keep dangerous criminals off the streets and reduce the danger to law-abiding members of our society, then prison absolutely works, and the longer the thugs are locked up, the better it works.

The governor earlier this week called for legislation that would require judges to sentence dangerous, repeat offenders to a specific, fixed prison term, instead of a range such as five to 10 years.

Technically, mandating fixed incarceration terms would not change the sentencing guidelines judges currently use or the factors considered by parole boards to determine when offenders are released. But in effect, requiring sentences to be a specific number of years would eliminate any opportunity for the early release of inmates convicted more than once of such violent crimes as manslaughter, robbery and rape.

While this lock-’em-up and throw-away-the-key approach may sound logical, it would hamstring judges, who should have some leeway in imposing punishment.

Which is, of course, exactly what Governor Rendell is trying to do!

The editors cannot have forgotten the case of Daniel Giddings. Mr Giddings murdered Highway Patrol Officer Patrick McDonald less than four months ago. He was a convicted felon who had been given the legal minimum sentence by a soft-hearted and soft-headed Philadelphia Common Pleas judge by the name of Lynn B. Hamlin, despite a very lengthy and violent record, and despite the pleas of Assistant District Attorney Joseph Coolican, who said there was “absolutely no reason to believe” that it would ever be safe to release Mr Giddings. While in prison, Mr Giddings was constantly in trouble: he was charged 27 times with disciplinary problems in prison and spent 537 days in solitary confinement. Still, prison officials recommended him for parole. Yet the editors continued:

The public gives judges the authority to look at each defendant and determine which ones deserve longer incarceration than others. Rendell isn’t trying to take away judges’ authority; he is guessing that if judges must set specific sentences, they will lean toward maximum time. Judges, though, could do the opposite.

Were Mr Rendell’s program in place, corrections officials could not have released Mr Giddings prior to the expiration of his sentence. Former Judge Hamlin could, of course, have sentenced Mr Giddings to something less than the maximum of the minimum sentence range; she could have sentenced him to six or eight or ten years. Thankfully, she is retired now, and can no longer harm the public by giving criminals like Mr Giddings, who had a long, violent prior record, minimum sentences. One hopes that Mr Rendell’s recommendations will encourage other judges to mete out sentences closer to the maximum than the minimum when it comes to violent offenders.

The bottom line is whether mandatory sentences will make the streets safer or merely give the public a false sense of security.

And the bottom line is very clearly understood: a criminal who is still in prison is far less of a threat to society than one out on the streets. It does not require a PhD in psychology or criminal justice to understand that.

The state must also consider the increased cost to incarcerate offenders longer. That could be a waste of money if additional funds are not also spent on improved rehabilitation services to better prepare offenders to return to society.

Well, it’s very obvious that by releasing Daniel Giddings early, the commonwealth saved a couple of years of incarceration costs for him. But, it seems to me that the city of Philadelphia incurred another cost, an unbudgeted one, due to Mr Giddings’ early release: it cost the life of a Philadelphia police officer.

Which brings to mind the lead editorial in today’s Inquirer, directly above in the print edition. The editors noted in City Contracts: Unions must give way,² that:

  • Employee costs make up, by far, the largest portion of the city’s expenditures; and
  • Police and Fire Department personnel make up the plurality of city personnel, at 42% of the workforce.

The editors said that, due to the city’s impending budget crunch, the unions must give in, and allow the city to hold the line on salaries, and have employees pay a larger share of their own benefits packages. I agree with that, but have to wonder how the editors could say that with a straight face while at the same time, on the same page, manage to ignore the rather large cost the city’s policemen have had to pay for the early releases of criminals.

The editors simply have their priorities wrong. They are concerned about keeping the streets safe and with the rehabilitation of prisoners. But these cannot, and should not, have the same priorities. Governor Rendell attempted to differentiate between those criminals who stood a good chance of rehabilitation and those who did not, in a story in the Inquirer just a couple of days earlier:


Rendell: Eliminate parole for repeat violent offenders³

By Dianna Marder, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

After a year marked by horrific crimes committed by repeat violent offenders, Gov. Rendell called yesterday for legislation to keep them locked up longer.

“The parole system simply doesn’t work for these violent individuals who use deadly weapons,” Rendell told reporters yesterday at the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue.

“It works for nonviolent offenders,” he said. “In 2007, 95 percent of the state’s nonviolent 31,000 parolees were not rearrested.

“But not for this dangerous group of individuals . . . who learn to game the system.”

Mr Rendell was not trying to end early parole for first time offenders or for non-violent offenders; he was aiming specifically at people accused of violent crimes who had prior violent felony convictions. He was prioritizing what the editors failed to do: he was putting the safety of the public ahead, and hopefully far ahead, of rehabilitating criminals.

And that is what should be done. If you asked the public what they think, I guarantee that they would put a much higher priority on keeping violent criminals off the streets and locked up than they would in trying to reform them.

Governor Rendell is right on this, and the editors of The Philadelphia Inquirer are wrong. Repeat violent offenders should be locked up, for as long as the law allows, to keep them off the streets and away from law-abiding people.
¹ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Wednesday, 7 January 2009, p. A-10

² – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Wednesday, 7 January 2009, p. A-10
³ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, 5 January 2009, p. B-1


  1. Judges are worried about more than just costs – overcrowding taxes the prison system, more inmates means more corrections officers need to be hired, etc. I don’t know if mandating a fixed time in jail has been done in other states, but with those pressures on judges they are likely to lowball the time in jail a lot.

    The solution, in my opinion, is to stop sending those who commit non-violent “victimless” crimes (such as drug use and small-time distribution) to jail. Drug users take up far too many prison cells that could just as easily be used to hold violent criminals for longer periods of time…

  2. I wonder how many persons whose only crime was drug use are taking up prison space? I remember some horror stories about multiple years for pot use but how ofen does this occur?

    The legislative zeal for mandatory minimums is the byproduct of too many really nasty thugs getting a mere slap on the wrist.

    Regrettably, we are often stuck with ‘soft’ judges with a tender spot for criminals and no regard for their victims.

  3. Most of the people incarcerated for drug use are actually smaller distributors who were allowed to plead down.

    However, were it up to me, we’d either legalize recreational drugs, or treat users very harshly, because the only way to fight the drug war is to fight it from the demand side. Do one, or do the other, but the half-assed way we fight drugs now can never work.

    As for prison overcrowding, I have no problem with simply circling a field with concertina wire, setting up a bunch of tents, and shackling the thugs to stakes driven into the ground, giving them about six feet of movement. Boiling hot in July, freezing cold in January, pouring down rain in March, I don’t care.

  4. Art, according to this DOJ summary roughly a fifth of people in state prisons are there for drug offenses. Multiple years for simple possession doesn’t generally occur unless the person has a previous offense… however, if you rack up three possession raps in a three-strikes state, it can definitely happen.

    Note that those stats include everything from trafficking to simple possession. The only thing that would get all those people out of jail, then, is legalizing drugs completely. Frankly, if the choice is paroling violent offenders vs. keeping drugs illegal, it’s a no-brainer to me.

  5. As for prison overcrowding, I have no problem with simply circling a field with concertina wire, setting up a bunch of tents, and shackling the thugs to stakes driven into the ground, giving them about six feet of movement. Boiling hot in July, freezing cold in January, pouring down rain in March, I don’t care.

    The Sheriff Joe approach?

  6. The problem being that if prison is horribly scary, it hardens people who are “on the fence,” so to speak, making it harder to rehabilitate them. For the really hardened criminals (your murderers, repeat armed robbers, rapists, etc.) you have a point. By giving petty thieves, burglars, and other small-time crooks the same treatment as the hard cases and offering little in the way of rehabilitation or reentry assistance, you’re re-enforcing their outsider status while seriously pissing them off. If that doesn’t encourage recidivism, I’m Walter Cronkite.

    Prison requires just the right amount of humiliation for the small-time crook. Enough so that he’s scared of returning, yes, but not so much so that he doesn’t care about society anymore. And guards need to ensure that prisoners are never, ever allowed to abuse one another. That’s another thing that hardens criminals…

  7. Oh, and if the Sheriff Joe approach worked, Phoenix would be significantly safer than other major cities… but it isn’t. It’s actually even less safe than L.A…

  8. When I was a boy in Baltimore, many juvenile offenders were sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School. We all heard rumors of how rough the ‘students’ were treated and they were probably far from the truth.

    Parents could declare a boy incorrigable and off to St. Mary’s he went. The threat alone often worked.

    Among its ‘graduates’ was Babe Ruth.

    Noisy politicians decided that the State should not subsidize a church affiliated institution and the school could not survive without the public money. The price of ‘juvenile justice’ keeps increasing and the results are not worth the price.

    The current juvenile justice system in Maryland is a joke and a vicious thug who qualifies as a ‘juvenile’ may accumulate a ‘sealed’ rap sheet of some length before feeling any meaningful retribution.

    As far as drug laws go, minor offenses do help some cops to maintain an arrest quota.

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