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Prison Furloughs: Campaigns Obscuring Complex Issue

Times Staff Writer

As the presidential campaign serve and volley over prison furloughs continued this past week, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis’ spokesman accused Vice President George Bush of having “his facts wrong.” Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, in turn, accused Dukakis of having his facts wrong.

And, as most voters who are listening to the charges and countercharges already probably suspect, both sides have been shading--and in some cases flatly ignoring--the facts on a complex correctional issue in their quest to score rhetorical points.

Bush’s aides, for example, have made much of the fact that Massachusetts released 12 drug dealers on weekend furloughs in 1986. The Reagan Administration, however, which also runs a large prison system, gave furloughs--in some cases as long as 30 days--to more than 2,000 people convicted of drug offenses that year, according to federal prison officials. How many of those people were dealers is unclear, but most probably were. Prosecutions are almost never initiated in federal court simply on drug-possession charges.

Statistics Incomplete

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Full statistics on the federal furlough program are not available. Earlier this week, Bureau of Prisons officials said they were preparing a statistical report in response to numerous requests from news organizations. Thursday, however, prisons spokesman Joseph Scibana said the bureau, which is part of the Justice Department, had completed the report but had been “instructed” to send it to department headquarters rather than release it.

Friday, Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten said he had “problems” with numbers in the report that did not add up properly. “I’m just not going to release it” until those problems can be straightened out, a job which would be finished Tuesday, Korten said.

Even so, available information on the federal system leads to a bottom line that is rather uncomfortable for Bush: On prison furloughs, at least, the records of the Dukakis Administration and the Reagan Administration are not that far apart.

Both the federal system, which jails about 46,000 prisoners, and the Massachusetts system, which has just under 7,000, give furloughs to 10% to 15% of their inmates each year. Federal officials between January and May of this year granted some 2,500 furloughs, Scibana said.

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Both Use Same Reasons

Both systems grant the releases for the same reasons. As the federal Bureau of Prisons’ guidelines put it, furloughs are not “a reward” or “a means to shorten a criminal sentence” but a way to help rehabilitate inmates and a lever to help control inmate behavior.

Both systems provide furloughs to prisoners who have been convicted of a huge variety of crimes--from drunk driving to murder, although, on the whole, the federal system tends to have less violent inmates and more white-collar criminals, than state systems.

And both have fairly strict controls that, on paper at least, are designed to prevent release of prisoners who pose a severe risk to the community. “Nobody gets even close to consideration for furlough” in the federal system “if they are even the slightest danger to the community,” Korten insisted.

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In both systems, a prisoner must have been incarcerated long enough and be judged sufficiently rehabilitated to have been moved into a minimum-security prison before he can be considered for furlough. And, in both, prisoners with bad disciplinary records are supposed to be ineligible for release.

But those paper controls are not, of course, foolproof in either system. Both Massachusetts and the federal prisons have suffered escapes by people released on furloughs, on the order of a dozen a year in both cases.

Key Difference Noted

The most disastrous failure of the Massachusetts system is the case of Willie Horton--a convicted murderer sentenced to life in prison without parole, who was released on a furlough in 1986, escaped and raped a woman in Maryland. The case underlines the one major difference between the federal and the Massachusetts systems, one which Dukakis’ aides have been eager to play down.

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Until April, when Dukakis reluctantly signed new legislation changing the Massachusetts furlough rules, Massachusetts, alone in the nation, considered murderers sentenced to life without parole eligible for furlough. The policy stemmed from a state Supreme Judicial Court decision allowing furloughs for murderers.

The decision was issued shortly after Dukakis’ Republican predecessor, Francis Sargent, pushed the furlough law through the state Legislature in 1972. Whether Horton would have been released on furlough had he been jailed in another state is unclear. Nearly every state has a furlough program, and 33 allow furloughs for murderers serving life terms with the possibility of parole.

In Massachusetts, Horton was sentenced to life without parole because that is the state’s automatic penalty for first-degree murder. In many other states, which allow parole for murderers, Horton might, also, have been eligible for furlough release.

Seen as Management Issue

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The fact that Horton escaped, Bush aides insist, shows that Dukakis’ much-touted management skills are an illusion. “Michael Dukakis has to answer for Willie Horton,” said Bush spokesman Mark Goodin. “If Michael Dukakis had been managing his system the way he should have,” the Horton case would not have happened. “It’s good management, not good luck” that has spared the federal system a similar disaster, Goodin said.

But many chief executives, Ronald Reagan among them, might have to disagree with that argument. While Reagan was governor of California, several prisoners granted furloughs escaped and committed highly celebrated crimes.

In the most widely publicized case, in 1972, David Brenenstahl, a 26-year-old burglar with a lengthy juvenile record, escaped while on a 72-hour furlough and murdered Los Angeles Police Department officer Philip J. Riley. After that incident, and two others in which furloughed inmates murdered people in Orange and San Bernardino counties, Reagan defended the state program as a “model in correctional systems for the whole nation” that has “had great success.”

Risks Small, Experts Say

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And that, said University of San Diego School of Law Dean Sheldon Krantz, underlines a basic point about all prison release programs. “It’s understandable to pick out a few horrendous cases,” said Krantz, an expert on furlough programs, but corrections experts insist that the risks of furloughs are small, particularly in comparison to abolishing furloughs in the current era of vastly overcrowded prisons.

“It’s very easy for a politician to point the finger at a furlough program and say someone is ‘soft on crime,’ ” Krantz said. “They have an added responsibility to talk about the alternatives.”


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