Letters Extra: Safety first priority for parole board

Pennsylvania parole agents arrest a parole violator. (File)

The citizens of this commonwealth have a right to know that the state parole system does work, and that protecting public safety is the parole board's highest priority (“Pa. parole practices endanger city,” July 1).

Working with offenders is complex. Long established criminal thinking behaviors are not changed overnight. For several years, the Board has been studying what works to change offender behavior because only through behavior changes will we reduce recidivism and victimization. We have implemented many proven reentry strategies without compromising public safety that states across the country are using guided by research from national organizations. We use actuarial instruments that have been validated on Pennsylvania's population. We have established secure centers for technical parole violators that address immediate problem behavior of a parolee.

Further, our district offices routinely work with other law enforcement agencies. These partnerships are invaluable to protecting the safety of the public. Most recently, the board began a joint project with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to target high risk offenders who have a history of violence, weapons possession and drug dealing. These offenders are notified that they will be closely monitored and if they choose to commit another crime, the investigation and prosecution will be assertive and swift. They are also introduced to community services that can help them change their life; if that is the path they choose.

In 2012, the board issued almost 5,000 warrants for technical parole violations. Not all technical parole violations require a warrant and subsequent arrest. In fact, the law provides for the use of a graduated sanctioning process, so that technical parole violators "shall be supervised in accordance with evidence-based practices" that may include consideration of community-based sanctioning alternatives to incarceration, as well as commitment. There are many sanctioning options at an agent's disposal. The decision to revoke parole is made case by case and is based on whether or not the parolee can be safely and effectively managed in the community. When warranted the board will return an offender to a secure center, county jail or state prison as provided by law.

At the second Public Safety Committee hearing by the state legislature, a current Philadelphia state parole agent testified that retaining experienced agents would help with the workload and enhance public safety.

The board couldn't agree more.

As we testified, Philadelphia historically has been challenged with a high percentage of job candidates who fail background checks and a high turnover rate of parole agents. The Board implemented several changes to address this problem, and we are experiencing improvements. The turnover rate is down significantly since 2009, from 45 percent to 27 percent; and the percentage of agents who have less than three years of experience as a parole agent is 33 percent, which is down from 48 percent in 2008.

The parole system in Pennsylvania is evidence-based, holds offenders accountable and is effective. The Board continually strives to improve its performance, as any responsible agency should, and frequently consults with experts on parole. We have agreed to be a part of a workgroup in Philadelphia to examine how we can attract qualified candidates who desire a long-term career in Philadelphia in order to further reduce the vacancy and turnover rates. The public can be assured that protecting public safety is our highest priority.

Michael C. Potteiger, chairman, Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole