In November 2017, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced rapper Meek Mill to two to four years in prison for violating his probation — his original arrest was a decade earlier. The sentence of the 30-year-old Philadelphia-born musician sparked national outrage and protest -- and attention from famous athletes, musicians, and activists. Mill’s case shed light on an often-forgotten element of the criminal justice system: parole (supervision after incarceration) and probation (supervision instead of incarceration).
A new investigative series by The Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed and Dylan Purcell shows a parole and probation system in Pennsylvania that can become a nightmarish arbitrary penal system, trapping people in what could become a life sentence -- often for petty noncriminal violations.
In Philadelphia, an alarming one in 23 people are on probation or parole. That’s the highest supervision rate of any big city in the country. Like incarceration, supervision affects mostly black Americans. In Philadelphia, one in 14 black adults are under supervision, compared with one in 38 of adults of all other races.
Instead of creating a structure to help people avoid recidivism and incarceration, people under supervision are monitored closely and it can seem as if they are set up to fail. Some of the “violations” that sent people to jail: inability to pay court fees, relapsing during addiction treatment (which is not unusual as a part of recovery), and being unable to report to the probation office because they didn’t have the means to travel,or feared losing their jobs, or didn’t have child care.
The freedom of people under supervision depends a lot on the judge who originally sentenced them. With such wide judicial discretion there could be a difference of years — or decades — in the probation period between two people who committed the same offense.
The Inquirer’s series points to a few reforms that have been implemented elsewhere: capping probation periods, imposing punishment limits on technical violations, opening neighborhood reporting centers to make it easier to show up, not locking people up after they violate parole, and trusting them to show up in court (the recent move to reduce cash bail suggests that most would), to name a few.
A big challenge is that each one of these reforms depends on a different entity -- the city, state, or judicial district. Considering that parole and probation affect hundreds of thousands in the commonwealth, leaders of each level of government should come together and craft a comprehensive plan for reform.
For voters, the series also should serve as a reminder that judges in Pennsylvania are elected, and there is an election coming up Nov. 5. It is notoriously difficult to evaluate judicial candidates, but the more visibility these races get, the greater the chance that judges reflecting our values will be elected. The Inquirer’s investigation shows the kind of data that we can prepare to evaluate judges up for retention. Even though most people under supervision don’t have Meek Mill’s powerful friends, they are left to rely on voters to send a message that judges who trap people under supervision in a life sentence should not be on the bench.