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