Prison Furloughs

ANOTHER prison furlough horror story has surfaced, this time in Indiana. A convicted wife beater, who had threatened many times to kill his former spouse, was given a weekend pass and promptly carried out his threat. The bureaucratic negligence in this episode is boggling. The victim had repeatedly contacted officials, pleading to be informed before her ex-husband was released.

But her pleas, along with facts concerning the prisoner's past violence - including hundreds of beatings, rape of his wife, and kidnapping the couple's children - somehow got buried, partly because a plea bargain had masked the severity of his crimes.

The Indiana incident is sure to renew calls for an end to furloughs. But that's not the answer.

In practice, prison furloughs have a good record. Nationwide, about 1 percent of the thousands of prisoners released on furlough either abscond or commit another crime while out. True, that 1 percent can do a lot of damage. But research shows that inmates given furloughs do better once freed, having had the opportunity to establish contacts with prospective employers and to get reacquainted with families.

If furlough programs are to survive public scrutiny, tight administration is crucial.

Prison officials must have complete records of past offenses and criminal tendencies so that furlough decisions are informed. Victims should be notified of a prospective furlough. Furloughs should only go to prisoners whose time is nearly up; first-degree murderers and others whose records show a persistent tendency toward violence should be ineligible.

Prisoners should be released into the custody of people who have themselves been thoroughly checked. Finally, an inmate's whereabouts while on furlough should be scheduled beforehand and regularly checked by phone.

Furloughs are a useful tool, which should be fitted into wider reforms like smaller prisons and more meaningful work programs within prisons, not jettisoned because of atypical horror stories.

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