Meanwhile, prisons are overflowing, our cash-strapped treasury must come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate more bed space, and thousands of prisoners complete their sentences with few marketable skills.
Philadelphia's recent spate of fatal police shootings were committed by former prisoners - partly the fruit of our punitive policies. Daniel Giddings, the 27-year-old parolee who killed police Officer Patrick McDonald, spent as much of his life in custody as on the streets.
The violence of men like Giddings may not have been born inside prisons, but their years in the so-called corrections environment apparently did little to change them. These tragedies should raise questions not about how much time they served, but about what was done with them during that time.
Rehabilitative therapies are not foolproof, but they do keep improving. And if the options are attempting rehabilitation or just warehousing, the choice should be obvious.
Pennsylvania policymakers have overwhelmed the state's prison system, which is now operating at almost 120 percent of capacity, by lengthening sentences and curtailing parole. As a result, despite a budget approaching $2 billion, fewer resources have been available for the kind of evidence-based programs that have shown success in rehabilitating prisoners.
A state Department of Corrections briefing paper notes: "The decreased amount of rehabilitation received in prison contributes to high recidivism rates and prison returns for parolees. Inmates reentering society today are more likely than in the past to have previously failed at parole. Research indicates that 68 percent of released state prisoners are rearrested within three years, and 52 percent are returned to prison."
The latest example of our reactionary, crisis-by-crisis policymaking is a state House bill portrayed as requiring prison without parole for repeat violent offenders. It was prompted by community anger at the killing of those police officers by parolees. Public outrage is understandable, but it should lead to reevaluation, not turning the system on its ear.
Under the bill, Pennsylvania judges would be required to impose sentences of 15 to 30 years for a second violent offense - up from 10 to 20 years under current law - followed by 15 years of intensive post-prison supervision. A third violent offense would get a flat sentence of at least 30 and as much as life.
This would provide little incentive for anyone in prison to behave, much less bother trying to improve. And prisoners would be free to walk out of prison once they have served their time. Without parole, no one could require them to take more anger-management or violence-prevention classes, serve another year or two while they try to improve their attitude, or present a workable plan for reentry - all of which the Parole Board does now.
Temple professor John Goldkamp, who conducted a recent review of the system at the request of Gov. Rendell, praised the Parole Board for its professionalism and diligence in using the most sophisticated techniques available. This legislation would discard the board's judgment completely in favor of a release date set by a judge years earlier.
Neither the current nor the proposed system can guarantee success. Longer sentences have been tried unsuccessfully for the last three decades. It is time for a change that builds on what is good about the system and recognizes that corrective strategies can lead to safer communities.
William DiMascio is executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for prison reforms. He can be contacted at email@example.com.