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Department of Corrections recommends changes to monitoring parolees after recent homicides

Internal report following a string of killings allegedly by people out on parole

  • Brett Sholtis
Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, center, talks to reporters Aug. 28, 2019.

 Brett Sholtis / WITF

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, center, talks to reporters Aug. 28, 2019.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Pennsylvania Corrections Officers’ Association. 

(Mechanicsburg) The Department of Corrections is recommending policy changes following five incidents where people were killed, allegedly by parolees.

The recommendations are the result of a newly public internal report examining those five, unrelated incidents. In all of them, the alleged perpetrators were onetime Pennsylvania state inmates out on parole.

The internal report finds no evidence of misconduct or policy violations in the department, said DOC Secretary John Wetzel. “I don’t think you can point to one thing to say, ‘If we would have done this, it wouldn’t have happened.’”

The report also notes that the rate of violent crimes among people on parole over the past 10 years is “relatively stable.”

However, the department is working to implement 11 changes that Wetzel said may help to prevent similar events in the future.

Some of those changes can be made within the department, such as adding a public-facing online database of parolees, a move Wetzel said will help local law enforcement.

The public portal “makes it likely that they’ll contact state parole and we can be involved in the decision making, whether the crime is serious enough that it should result in them being detained even if they make bail.”

Other changes would require legislative action. Wetzel plans to create a committee to annually report on all murders committed by people on parole. He is also calling on lawmakers to add a sixth parole violation category for people who repeatedly fail to follow the terms of parole.

The report also recommends that magisterial courts be considered a “court of record,” closing a loophole that currently keeps parolees from receiving scrutiny for guilty pleas entered in that court.

A GOP House spokesman said leaders are reviewing the recommendations. A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf said the governor supports all the DOC’s proposed changes.

Not everyone is satisfied with the report. Larry Blackwell, who heads the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said the report doesn’t answer all his questions.

“This does not address our concerns, and yes we are still calling for an independent investigation,” Blackwell said. “The DOC claims they didn’t violate any of the policies. Someone needs to look at the policies they have put in place.”

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.

Here is a full list of proposed changes, as listed in a Department of Corrections news release:

  • Develop a domestic violence protocol to ensure consistent decision making.
  • Increase, enhance information sharing with those who make recommendations to the Board of Probation and Parole.
  • Establish protocol to ensure consultation with district attorneys when a parolee receives a new charge or is detained.
  • Launch a database so that law enforcement and others may easily ascertain whether someone is on parole supervision.
  • Expedite parole absconder case assignment to the Fugitive Apprehension Search Team (FAST) Unit.
  • Reassessment of technical parole violator cases prior to release to ensure proper level of supervision is assigned.
  • Use the Violence Forecasting Model (also known as the Berk Tool).
  • Issue an RFP for a new risk/needs assessment tool that pulls information for the risk assessment from existing data; and begin use of the new tool within one year.
  • Formalize parole recommendation guidelines for superintendents that will be used to dictate what information shall be considered.
  • Conduct semi-annual reviews of all critical incidents, with the review being co-chaired by the DOC secretary and chief counsel.
  • Augment the DOC’s Field Agent Training program.

Legislative changes:

  • Supporting legislation that closes the “court of record” loophole that exists in convicted parole violator and technical parole violator cases.
  • Adding a sixth violation category that addresses a parolee’s continued failure to adhere to recommended programming and/or conditions.
  • Creating a committee that will review and report annually on all murders committed by individuals on parole.

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