Pa. Corrections secretary cautions against ‘knee jerk’ reaction after parolee murders

State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

The six murders happened in relatively quick succession.

In the first, on May 23, a man allegedly strangled his girlfriend’s mother, then set her Hershey house on fire to cover it up.

On June 29, police say another man beat his girlfriend’s two-year-old son to death outside Baltimore. A similar crime happened a little over a week later in New Castle, about fifty miles outside Pittsburgh—this time the victim was eight years old, and his mother’s boyfriend allegedly stabbed him.

Police report that a man shot and killed an off-duty Pittsburgh police officer on July 14. And four days after that, another man is said to have stabbed his sister and niece in Lancaster.

In all those incidents, the alleged perpetrators were onetime Pennsylvania state inmates out on parole. And in a commonwealth that has been working systematically to get people out of prison, that prompted concern.

The state Department of Corrections is about halfway through an internal audit of the incidents, and will sit for a public hearing before the state House and Senate Judiciary Committees when it is finished.

“These are all of a pretty shocking and egregious nature,” said DOC Secretary John Wetzel. “I think it makes sense for us to look critically at it and see if there are any trends or any policies that are contributing.”

Wetzel likened the review to the National Transportation Safety Board’s process after a plane crash. DOC officials, he said, attempt to re-create incidents to try to understand each decision made.

In her letter to the DOC regarding the incidents, GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker thanked corrections officials for their work on the internal review and said it would yield “crucial” information.

But not everyone is as satisfied.

Larry Blackwell, who heads the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said he wants an outside entity to handle it.

“They can’t do their own investigation and report,” he said. “They do that now.”

Blackwell said he is particularly convinced there was an oversight in the case of Keith Burley, the man who allegedly stabbed his girlfriend’s eight-year-old son. Burley had a record of violence in prison, Blackwell said—including an incident in which he was convicted of stabbing another inmate in the neck with a pencil years before he was paroled.

Blackwell, a longtime corrections officer who was recently elected to lead the union, added that his skepticism is nothing new.

“The specific problem I have been pointing to is the mechanical operation of the parole board,” he said. “All you need to do is accomplish goals, like getting a GED, staying misconduct-free, maybe holding a job for six months in the prison…and once you get all the boxes check marked, you’re eligible for parole.”

He said he believes corrections officers should have more input in the parole process.

He also theorized that by restricting the leeway corrections officers have to sentence inmates to restricted housing—colloquially known as solitary confinement—the DOC is causing worse outcomes post-parole.

“When you take discipline out of anything, you lose control,” he said.

Wetzel, who served under GOP Governor Tom Corbett and now under Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, said he would be happy to provide records to anyone interested in conducting an independent review.

But he said data the DOC has collected doesn’t seem to support Blackwell’s conclusions.

In 2012, Pennsylvania took one of its first significant steps toward reducing its imprisoned population—which had previously been on an upswing—with the passage of the first phase of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI 1.

Among other things, it aimed to put parole violators into community correction centers rather than state prison, introduced a risk-assessment tool for judges to use during sentencing and got rid of pre-release, in which inmates could be assessed for release once their minimum sentences were up.

Another parole-related change was made in 2012, when the DOC and the Board of Probation and Parole combined some of their previously-overlapping responsibilities, like community supervision of parolees.

Wetzel said while he takes the recent spate of murders by people on parole seriously, he doesn’t want to make any unwarranted changes.

Records kept by the DOC show that since 2007, the first year for which the department provided data, the statewide parolee population has ballooned from 29,568 to 41,459, as of June 30.

In that time, total arrest rates for all alleged crimes by parolees have remained relatively stable. The low, in 2010, was 147.4 arrests per 1,000 parolees; the high, 168.2, came in 2015.

Last year, 156.2 per 1,000 parolees were arrested. The average for the 12 full years provided was 158.9.

Rates for charges of murder and attempted murder are much lower, and similarly consistent

The high, in 2007, was 3.1 murders or attempts per 1,000 parolees. In 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018, that number was at a low of 2.2 out of 1,000.

None of that, Wetzel said, appears to point to any recent parole-related policies increasing crime by parolees.

“Listen, I think in every way we need to use data, measure it, infer what we can from the actual data, learn what we can from individual cases, and not knee-jerk,” Wetzel said. “Bad criminal justice policy has happened for decades because of knee-jerk.”

He added that the commonwealth’s parole board is “making decisions based on more data and assessments than they ever have.”

A date has not been set for the House and Senate Judiciary committees to hear the DOC’s findings.

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