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This prisoner bears keeping

Dying of AIDS or not, Joseph Bilotta deserves to spend the rest of his sick life in prison.

The Florida Parole Commission voted two weeks ago to release Bilotta from prison _ where he was sent just last year for outrageous abuse against his wife and children _ because he has advanced acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The commission's vote is bad enough considering the nature of Bilotta's crimes and the fact that he has served only a fraction of his 15-year sentence. What's even worse, the commission overlooked or sloughed off one important detail: Bilotta has threatened to kill his family once he is set free.

Responding to frantic calls from state officials and Bilotta's wife (who, inexplicably, was not notified beforehand), the commission will re-examine its vote at a hearing today. Bilotta remains in prison pending its review. The commission should now act to put the family at ease.

The vote is only the latest in a series of controversies the commission has brought on itself, including political interference in its decisions and its mistaken release of more than 100 drug dealers. This year, the Legislature cut the number of commissioners by half and the budget by a fourth. Now that parole has been eliminated for future inmates and prison construction has made controlled release unnecessary, some legislators want to get rid of the commission altogether. Rash votes like this one can only fuel their desire.

Why didn't the commission more fully evaluate the danger presented by Bilotta's release? By law, a terminally ill or permanently incapacitated inmate may be medically released _ but only when he "does not constitute a danger to himself or others." Prosecutors warned the commission that Bilotta was still vindictive toward his family. "The fact that he may not have long to live actually makes him all the more dangerous because he has nothing to lose," Broward County Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider wrote in December. A state counselor also told the commission two months ago that Bilotta sent word to his family he plans to "finish them off."

To his credit, newly appointed Chairman Ed Spooner _ the sole dissenting vote _ acted responsibly in postponing Bilotta's release until the vote can be reconsidered. Spooner may the commission's best _ perhaps last _ chance to regain needed credibility and support. "I don't mean to sound callous or unconcerned, but some terminally ill inmates will never, in my view, be suitable for release," Spooner told the Times. Those comments sound more rational than callous, and fellow commissioners would do well to take Spooner's lead this time around.

Correction

An editorial on Tuesday incorrectly reported the amount direct deposit of Social Security checks will save the federal government. The correct amount is $500-million. We regret the error.

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