Homicide charges against parolees unlikely to trigger tough-on-crime backlash, criminologist says
Pictured is a row of cells at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill in Camp Hill, Pa. (Marc Levy/AP)
A string of homicides allegedly committed by five Pennsylvania men following their release from prison prompted an investigation by the state’s corrections department last month. The five parolees were charged with committing a total of six homicides over a two-month period, the Associated Press reported.
The incidents triggered criticism from a prison guard union official and prosecutors, according to the Associated Press.
Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association President Larry Blackwell, for example, said parole decisions have become “machinery,” with the state parole board failing to evaluate individual inmates’ histories of violence.
In 2017, Pennsylvania consolidated its Department of Corrections with the state’s Probation and Parole Board. The move was meant to promote consistency in reentry programming and is credited with helping to lower the state’s prison population.
Despite Blackwell’s concerns, Daniel Lee, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Lee said it’s important to examine the circumstances that led to the six alleged homicides.
“We really don’t understand anything about the context of what has happened in those individual events,” said Lee, “what happened while those individuals were incarcerated, or what happened after they were released in terms of supervision, care, and coordination of different services that might exist in their communities.”
State corrections data also show there’s been a slight downward trend in the murder and attempted murder rate among Pennsylvania parolees. The rate declined from 0.3 percent in 2007 to 0.2 percent last year. People on parole were charged with murder or attempted murder in 93 cases last year, according to the Department of Corrections data.
Lee commended the department for launching an investigation into the release of the five men accused of homicide, even though Blackwell, of the corrections officer’s union, has demanded an independent probe.
“When we have the secretary of the Department of Corrections say he wants to take charge and lead this investigation, that’s a great place to start,” Lee said.
Lee added, however, “it wouldn’t hurt to have outside agencies or individuals look at what’s happening.” He noted that the corrections department collects vast amounts of data that could facilitate an independent inquiry.
Blackwell did not respond to 90.5 WESA’s requests for comment.
In the past, stories of violent crimes committed by formerly incarcerated people have derailed efforts at reforming criminal justice policies. Lee does not expect the recent homicide allegations to have a similar effect.
Liberals and conservatives alike, Lee noted, have grown skeptical of “tough-on-crime” policies that have taken an enormous human and financial toll.
“It’s an expensive thing,” Lee said. “And that’s something that everyone can and should appreciate, whether it’s dollars or humans.”
Such thinking could also spark further conversation and deeper analysis about criminal justice policy, the criminologist added.
“The more we have people talking about it, I think the better the process will be for everyone involved.”
Adam Tunnard contributed to this report.