The case of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who was jailed three times on minor violations while on probation for nearly a decade, drew the public's attention to a system of mass supervision that had been mostly overlooked in conversations about mass incarceration.
But with around 290,000 people under probation and parole statewide — and 7,443 Pennsylvanians incarcerated every day on violations — it was clear the problems with the system extend far beyond that one case.
To reveal what's driving this system, Inquirer reporters analyzed five years of state criminal dockets, watched hundreds of court hearings, and conducted scores of interviews.
They found a net of correctional control that has grown unchecked in Pennsylvania because of unusual state laws that set few limits on probation or parole. They found a courthouse culture in which judges, working without guidelines, impose wildly different versions of justice — some extending probation for each new crime, others sending low-level offenders to state prison for years on end. And they met people who’d lost their housing, lost jobs, and missed out on educational opportunities because of the rules of probation.
“The Probation Trap” reveals a justice system that aims to rehabilitate people, but often makes them more desperate. And it shows how solutions employed elsewhere could work in Pennsylvania.