Officer's death prompts parole review

Throwing open the prison doors to put an inmate out on probation is always a gamble, but there are times when it’s plainly just a losing bet.

The release of the ex-con charged in the fatal shooting of Police Officer Moses Walker Jr. just before the Aug. 18 attack clearly is a case where law enforcement officials would, in a heartbeat, turn back the clock.

Had the accused gunman, Rafael Jones, 23, not been on the streets that day with his alleged accomplice, Chancier McFarland, the 19-year police veteran Walker could have reached home safely after working an overnight shift.

But apart from the fateful encounter during what police said was a robbery, it’s the likelihood that the courts and probation officers may have let Jones slip from their grasp a second time that has caused Gov. Corbett to order a much needed inquiry.

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Following disclosures in The Inquirer, Corbett on Thursday put state Board of Probation and Parole officials to work on an in-depth probe of Jones’ initial prison release and possible missteps in the days following that, if avoided, might have landed Jones back in custody.

First and foremost, the probe must determine why Jones wasn’t put under house arrest for violating his probation as ordered July 25 by Common Pleas Court Judge Susan I. Schulman. Certainly, the drug test that Jones failed in early August should have been a red flag. And Jones’ parole officer was reported to have tried to get his supervisors’ OK for an arrest warrant.

Even if probation officials are found to have followed protocol to the letter, the events surrounding Jones’ release point up a serious flaw — in that state officials acknowledge that delays happen routinely in setting up electronic monitoring for some convicts put on house arrest. By contrast, Philadelphia probation officials under the courts’ direction employ a better system of refusing to release prisoners until they can be fitted with monitoring devices.

In addition to Corbett’s inquiry, necessary reviews of parole procedures in this case are being sought in both the state House and Senate. With that said, it’s important to assure that any reforms arising from the Jones case are calibrated carefully.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey parole systems have been roiled by controversy in the past over the release of convicts who went on to commit murder and other crimes. After the 2008 halfway house release of the killer of Philadelphia Police Officer Patrick McDonald, as well as the parole of a Philadelphia-area Warlocks motorcycle club member who killed Franklin Township Police Sgt. Ippolito “Lee“ Gonzalez in 1995, the parole of all prisoners was suspended while inquiries were conducted.

The long-term goal of the investigation into Jones’ case, though, has to be to make parole less of a gamble — not shut it down completely, since that risks untenable, runaway prison costs and undue hardship for convicts who’ve paid their debt and eager to stay out of trouble.

Most convicts get out of jail at some point. Fixing flaws in parole procedures will keep fewer offenders from returning to crime.

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