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When arresting parole violators is right — or wrong

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Follow @csteditorialsIn the old black-and-white movies, when a convict (played by somebody like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart) is paroled from prison, the warden warns him, “Keep your nose clean or you’ll be right back here.”

The warden means get a job, stay out of trouble and don’t associate with bad characters.

That was good advice then, in the movies and in real life, and good advice now. Illinois has long made it a violation of parole for an ex-offender to associate with other convicted felons or gang members — and for good reason. Parole is intended as an opportunity for onetime criminals to turn their lives around, without endangering the rest of us. That’s not likely to happen if they go right back to their old haunts and old friends.

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In recent years, the Chicago Police Department, under pressure to reduce gun violence, increasingly has used parole violations to get convicted felons off the street. In many cases, as reported by Mick Dumke of the Sun-Times, the people being picked up and jailed have been accused of nothing more than being around neighbors and longtime acquaintances.

Critics of this increase in arrests say it is driven by a casual disregard for civil liberties, and we understand the argument. It might be overreach, for example, for the police to charge somebody with a parole violation simply because he attended a family party at which a cousin with a criminal record also was in attendance.

But Chicago has demanded that the police do more to reduce violent crime and make us safer, and they can’t do that without certain basic crime-fighting tools, of which arresting parole violators is an entirely reasonable one. The police should use common sense when making arrests, avoiding overreach, but everybody on parole knows the score. They have been warned. Guilt by association is a risk when you’re out on parole, and understandably so.

The fuzziest form of violation might be what the police call “unlawful contact” with a gang member. As Dumke reports, people have been arrested and jailed just for talking with a neighbor who belongs to a gang or for sitting on a porch with a friend who happens to belong to a gang.

Is that necessarily wrong? We’d have to know the particulars. Maybe a guy out on a parole really shouldn’t be hanging out a porch with a gang member, friend or not. Parole is not forever, and a person on parole has not been released from his prison sentence. But a bill introduced in the Illinois House by state Rep. Justin Slaughter would prohibit parole violation arrests in some of these more innocuous circumstances. His bill would carve out exceptions for “pro-social” activities such as church services, volunteering or family events.

Slaughter’s bill does not resolve the issue, though, nor should it. The police still would have to make judgment calls about what’s a “pro-social” event and what’s gangbanging in disguise. That can be a tough call, especially in neighborhoods where gangs have a heavy presence. As one man on parole complained after being arrested for contact with gang members: “I live here. I cannot avoid these dudes.”

The bottom line, though, remains: Prison parolees promise not to have contact with other convicted felons or gang members. The better they keep that promise, the less likely it is they will ever be arrested again.

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