Sentencing reform is coming to Pennsylvania. As we reported last week, sentencing reform bill House Bill 4 had passed the Senate and awaited routine approval in the House. Now the bill, which would allow for the diversion of nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs, has passed the House and been signed by Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and will go into effect 90 days after official publication.
The bill and related legislation is being described by some involved in the process as the biggest sentencing reform in years in Pennsylvania. It will allow the early release of some prisoners, including drug and petty theft offenders, if they complete educational and job-training programs.
"This represents a new approach to criminal justice for offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes," said House Speaker Dennis M. O'Brien (R-Philadelphia), one of the bills' chief advocates. "It will make the public safer, ensure that offenders receive services essential to break the cycle of crime, reduce duplication of efforts that waste taxpayer dollars, and ensure that crime victims are treated fairly," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"We have a serious problem here in Pennsylvania with the numbers of people we are sending to prison," said William DiMascio, whose organization, The Prison Society, advocates on behalf of prisoners. "With so many new people entering the system, and with sentences becoming longer and parole becoming tighter, it was inevitable that we would reach a point of saturation. With prisons at capacity -- and beyond capacity -- you begin to have dangerous conditions, both for the people held there and for the people who work there," he said. "Doing nothing was not an option."
But although early release and diversion provisions in the bill do not apply to violent offenders, the politics of violent crime has already intruded. In response to the killing of a Philadelphia police officer, just four days after signing the bill, Gov. Rendell issued a statement announcing the suspension of releases for all paroled prisoners pending a review of the parole and corrections systems.
"Last week, Philadelphia Police Officer Patrick McDonald was tragically murdered by a paroled offender, but it is even more tragic that this was the second instance within the last four months of a parolee shooting a Philadelphia police officer," wrote Rendell, referring to the shooting of Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski. "Heartbreaking losses such as these have shed light on the need to thoroughly review the process by which Pennsylvania paroles violent offenders. Therefore, I am asking you to review the way in which these two cases were managed by the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole in order to minimize the likelihood that these kinds of scenarios will be repeated."
So, for the time being, someone paroled after doing time for a nonviolent drug offense is going to be stuck in prison because a paroled violent offender killed a police officer, the new law notwithstanding.