Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly came close to reforming the Keystone State’s broken probation system to cut costs and improve community safety. It’s time to finish the job.
In 2020, the commonwealth had 178,000 people on community supervision, a staggering 85,000 more than neighboring New York. That’s the sixth-largest probation population in the country. Roughly 1,700 of every 100,000 Pennsylvanians are on probation, 19% higher than the national average.
The causes of this pandemic of punitiveness are no mystery. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that doesn’t impose a cap on the length of probation sentences. In most states, the maximum period one can be put on probation is five years or fewer. The nationwide average is under two-year terms. In the commonwealth, however, judges can place people on probation for decades, even for lower-level crimes. Sentences of five, 10, or 20 years are not uncommon, as The Inquirer reported in 2019.
Another culprit is “stacked” sentences. If someone is charged with two misdemeanors, each carrying a maximum five-year sentence, the judge can “stack” the terms, relegating the defendant to a decade under the thumb of the government. Judges can also extend probation for those unable to pay fines and fees. The result is a supervision system probationers describe as a kind of “Kafkaesque hell,” where the pathway to redemption grows more difficult each day.
On probation, restrictions govern every facet of daily life. Violating any can land someone back behind bars — even if the violation itself isn’t a crime. For example, curfew violations, leaving the jurisdiction, or having a drink can trigger a so-called “technical violation.” Worse yet, failing to pay restitution, fines, or fees can become a technical violation. Because being on probation means impromptu visits by probation officers, unscheduled drug tests, and other disruptions, employers are hesitant to hire probationers.
Individuals on probation are required to follow a myriad of rules, find housing, and earn a living. If they fail in the slightest, they may be returned to prison — and are too often. In fact, almost 90% of reincarcerations or extended probation sentences were for technical violations. As a result of people having to walk this tightrope, one in 10 new prison admissions in Pennsylvania in 2017 were already on probation. Instead of making Pennsylvanians safer, it cost counties, the state, and ultimately taxpayers $101 million in additional incarceration costs. We can think of better uses of taxpayer money, such as fighting opioid addiction, adding police officers, or for tax cuts.
Perhaps this cost would be worth it if it served public safety, but there’s little evidence it does. In fact, data make clear that after 18 months of probation, reoffending rates drop dramatically. Worse yet, excessive probation terms are associated with increased recidivism, as being on supervision imposes barriers to finding employment, education, or housing.
Recognizing the fiscal strain this system imposes on the commonwealth — not to mention the way overly harsh supervision destroys families and hinders successful reentry — the General Assembly has been working on legislation to reform probation.
Legislation considered by the assembly last year (Senate Bill 14) would have incentivized good behavior by offering early termination of probation for those who proved capable of finding a job, obtaining education, and otherwise following the rules. The bill would have placed limits on the length of time someone can be on probation unless prosecutors can demonstrate why a longer term is needed. It would have established a set of graduated and proportional sanctions for technical violations so that probation officers and judges would have alternative ways to hold people accountable without having to return them to prison. Finally, the bill would have limited judges’ ability to jail someone because they are unable to pay their fines and fees, recognizing that no one should be incarcerated just because they lack that money.
SB 14 was hardly controversial, passing the Senate unanimously. But the legislation got caught up in inter-chamber politics and so died in the House. This year, conservative and liberal groups are working together to fix the system, with plans to introduce legislation to limit probation terms, break the supervision-to-prison pipeline, and give persons who are complying a better chance at successfully reentering society.
With COVID-19 hopefully waning, it’s time for Pennsylvania to face its other lingering epidemic: a probation system that breaks lives and the state’s budget. Politicians of all stripes should stop bickering, find common ground, and make Pennsylvanians safer.
Mike Jones represents Pennsylvania’s 93rd District, which includes York County. In 2020, he was named one of the most conservative members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly by the American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF). David Safavian is ACUF’s general counsel.