Lawmakers Seeking To Replace Parole Board

Posted: December 14, 1990

An inequitable and inefficient parole system is largely to blame for overcrowding in Pennsylvania's state prisons, leaders of state House and Senate Judiciary committees said yesterday.

The lawmakers' solution: Abolish the state Board of Probation and Parole.

At a news conference in Harrisburg, the committee members announced plans to introduce legislation soon after Jan. 1 that would place the Department of Corrections in charge of parole supervision and eliminate much of the guesswork over when an inmate's sentence would end.

Instead of the current practice, in which the parole board evaluates an inmate's fitness to be freed before release, inmates would be let go automatically upon a date set by the trial judge.

An exception would be if the Department of Corrections decided that an inmate's misconduct while in prison merited a longer term.

At the same time, guidelines would be changed to allow trial judges to sentence a convict to more time.

Rep. Lois Sherman Hagarty (R., Montgomery) called the proposed reforms ''broad-sweeping" and "profound," and said they were needed because of the severity of crowding in the state prisons, where 22,500 inmates are crammed into facilities designed for 13,900 and where one prison - Camp Hill - exploded in riots last year from the tensions.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, endorsing the legislation, said the proposals would cut the state prison population by 202 inmates in its first year, 3,471 inmates after five years and 5,120 inmates after 10 years.

A major goal is to ensure that inmates leave prison promptly at the end of their sentences.

According to a recent study by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, inmates are remaining in prison an average of six months past their minimum-release dates. The additional time accounts for 1,500 additional inmates statewide.

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) blamed the parole board's ''inefficiency" and "unresponsiveness."

"Fifty to 80 percent of prison overcrowding is attributable to the inefficiency of the parole department," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"This is an agency that's unresponsive, that's not easily affected by the legislature or executive branch," he said, "and we think it would be a much better process if it were put under a cabinet-level branch."

Joseph M. Long, a spokesman for the Board of Probation and Parole, said the board had no comment on the legislators' remarks.

But in previous instances when the board has been similarly criticized, Long has said that critics have exaggerated the parole board's impact on prison crowding. He has said that when delays in inmate releases occur, they are usually the result of the board's taking care to ensure that public safety is not jeopardized by an inappropriate release.

State prison inmates are sentenced to minimum and maximum time, with the minimum restricted to no more than half of the maximum. It is widely expected that the convict will be freed upon completion of the minimum, the lawmakers said.

In effect, the lawmakers said, the system amounts to two sentencing procedures - one at trial and the other by the parole board. And the parole board's review often lacks logic because of the difficulty of predicting future behavior.

"Trying to decide who's going to behave and who's not going to behave - that's the whole fallacy," said Rep. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), minority chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

"The old idea was to base an inmate's release on rehabilitation," Piccola said. "But rehabilitation doesn't really occur on any real rational basis. It occurs on occasions, and on other occasions it doesn't occur. . . . And with overcrowding, prison programs aren't even given the opportunity to work."

Corrections Commissioner Joseph D. Lehman said the proposal was "grounded in sound correctional theory and sound correctional research."

Under the proposals, parole supervisors now working would become employees of the Corrections Department. The parole board would live on in reduced form as the Board of Revocations and continue to hear parole-violation cases and have the power to recommit an offender.

Hagarty said the proposal would be in tune with a national trend. She said 14 states and the federal system had adopted such systems of "determinate sentencing" since 1976.

Pennsylvania and Tennessee are the only states to have instituted sentencing guidelines without adopting determinate sentences, Hagarty said.

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