Op-Ed: Wolf Chooses Wrong Reduction

For 23 years, it was my duty and obligation to uphold the laws of this country while I served as a United States Marshal. I swore an oath to protect our citizens and our Constitution, and over the course of my career I put bad people behind bars.

Having dedicated my life to protecting our communities, many in government look to me to be a voice and leader on criminal justice matters, and I appreciate that my colleagues turn to me for guidance.

I also serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Department of Corrections and state correctional institutions, which house roughly 45,000 inmates currently.  Therefore, I feel I must speak up and express concern for Governor Tom Wolf’s latest unilateral decision during the COVID-19 pandemic with the announcement of his Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration.  It is his plan to release up to 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

Governor Wolf says this exodus will relieve pressure on our prison system.  And to be clear, legislative proposals were crafted to authorize the release of certain inmates to provide such relief, however, none of the plans put forth garnered enough support to be considered by the Senate or House. Although the Governor claimed he did not want to take action without legislative approval, he has gone against that declaration and has yet again shown complete disregard for Pennsylvanians and our structure of government.

According to the Governor, this 4% reduction of inmates is only to include non-violent offenders within nine months of release or inmates at high-risk of complications of COVID-19 within twelve months of getting out.  While many of these prisoners are coming close to their parole dates, normal protocol would require them to petition the Board of Probation and Parole for early release.  The Governor claims Judges and District Attorneys will be afforded the opportunity to provide input regarding inmate releases, but the final decisions would be made solely by the Department of Corrections, without veto power by a Judge or District Attorney. And, for the record, Josh Shapiro, the Commonwealth’s Attorney General, hasn’t weighed in on the matter, at the time of writing this.

It is my opinion that these criminals should remain behind bars and work through the proper channels for release while the Department of Corrections takes steps to prevent the virus from entering our prisons. Those incarcerated still have a debt to society to pay, and the COVID-19 public health crisis is not an excuse to let those incarcerated go free. Not to mention, I’ve visited enough prisons to know that it’s hard to find a better place to quarantine than a 6×8 prison cell.

However, instead of taking steps to keep the virus out of the prison system, we are going to send the most vulnerable population out into the Commonwealth where we know the virus exists. According to the Governor, these individuals will be transferred to community corrections facilities or home confinement.  How many of these prisoners will be going to Pennsylvania’s hotspots such as southeastern Pennsylvania in and around Philadelphia?  Why are we assuming a community corrections facility or a prisoner’s own home is better protection from the virus than their prison cell?

Those individuals with health needs will require access to medication and medical providers, and of course, a parole agent will be required to supervise them.  How much of this will be done by means of social distancing?  Are we simply opening the door for them to be exposed to more carriers of the virus than they would have been in prison?

Governor Wolf has used this public health crisis to accelerate his ideological view of lessened penalties for criminals is good for Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, the Governor is focused on the wrong constituency. He is releasing prisoners at a time when all Pennsylvania residents are being made to stay at home while being threatened with a citation if they leave their house.  And instead of granting early release to those who have chosen to tear down society, how about supporting those who have built society and have made our communities better?

I wish the Governor would give the same attention to the taxpaying, job-creating, private businesses, where he has chosen winners and losers through his egregious and inconsistent business waiver program. From March 15 through April 10, we have seen our unemployment rolls skyrocket, and 1.3 million have filed unemployment compensation claims with Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry.  Our state budget deficit is growing by the day, and we are billions of dollars in the red.  With a phone call, the Governor could reopen the construction and automotive industries and send 330,000 Pennsylvanians back to work. That is a reduction he could be proud of and Pennsylvanians would applaud.