The Probation Trap

Pennsylvania has one of the nation's highest rates of supervision, driven by unusual laws that leave judges unchecked. But many people fail, ending up in jail or in a cycle of ever more probation.
Or continue to the introduction below

The problem with probation

In Pennsylvania, as across the country, crime rates have fallen to their lowest point in decades.
But over that same time, the rate of incarceration in Pennsylvania state prisons and county jails nearly quintupled ...
… while the number on probation or parole also grew almost five times larger, to 290,000 people.
Counting jail, prison, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania now has the nation’s second-highest rate of people under correctional control. Probation and parole account for three-quarters of that — a phenomenon critics of mass incarceration call “mass supervision.”
Nationwide, one in 55 adults is on probation or parole.
In Pennsylvania, that’s one in 35 adults.
In Philadelphia: one in 23 adults.
African American adults in Philadelphia are disproportionately impacted. One in 14 is under supervision.
Philadelphia’s county supervision rate is the highest of any big city — and 12 times the rate of New York City.
What’s driving this?
To find answers, we watched hundreds of hearings, interviewed scores of people, and analyzed 700,000 case dockets from 2012 to 2018.
What we found is a system virtually ungoverned by law or policy, resulting in wildly disparate versions of justice from one courtroom to the next.
We found a system that routinely punishes poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We met a woman who was jailed two months for failing to report to probation because she wasn’t permitted to bring her newborn child and couldn’t afford a babysitter. We met a man who was locked up because he didn’t have $227 to pay for a court-ordered drug evaluation.
As a result, some people remain under court control for years after being convicted of low-level crimes, resentenced two, three, four, or five times over for infractions including missing appointments, falling behind on payments, or testing positive for marijuana.
Probation and parole violations are flooding the court system, filling city jails and driving up state prison populations.
Many other states, recognizing similar problems, have reformed their systems. Can Pennsylvania?


probation trap part 2 thumnail

Living in Fear

Probation is meant to keep people out of jail. But intense monitoring leaves tens of thousands across the state at risk of incarceration.
probation trap part 3 thumnail

Judges Rule

When it comes to probation, Pennsylvania has left judges unchecked to impose wildly different versions of justice.
probation trap part 4 thumnail

Punishing Addiction

Courts recognize substance-use disorder is a disease. Yet some judges continue punishing relapse with ever-longer probation and even prison.
probation trap part 6 thumnail

The Marijuana Paradox

Philadelphia has decriminalized marijuana, but those who get high on probation still risk incarceration.
probation trap part 7 thumnail

‘Everyone is Detained’

How probation detainers can keep people locked up indefinitely — even when they haven't committed a crime.

Reporters: Samantha Melamed and Dylan Purcell

Editors: Cathy Rubin and James Neff

Visuals Editor: Danese Kenon

Creative Direction and Design: Garland Potts

Editorial Project Management: Megan Griffith-Greene

Photographers: Jessica Griffin, Michael Bryant, David Maialetti, Tim Tai, and Jose Moreno

Videographers: Jessica Griffin and Astrid Rodrigues

Graphics Editor: John Duchneskie

Drone Operator: Frank Wiese

Video Producer: Astrid Rodrigues

Social Producer: Ray Boyd

Illustrations: Cynthia Greer

Copy Editor: Rich Barron