Other Voices: Pa.’s probation system is a pipeline to incarceration
However, Pennsylvania’s current probation system has become just the opposite: a pipeline to incarceration that needlessly locks away thousands of Pennsylvanians every year.
Today, Pennsylvania has more than 180,000 adults on probation — about double the total number of probationers in nearby New York. Often articulated as a helpful alternative to incarceration, probation has now become one of the leading contributors to incarceration both in Pennsylvania and nationwide. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
At its core, Pennsylvania’s current probation system is a one-size-fits-all solution that fails in all too many cases. The fault lies not with hardworking probation officers who have too many cases and too few tools to change behavior. Rather, a few policymakers who have blocked reform at every turn must take responsibility for the current state of affairs. They have balked at reforms that would reduce caseloads. They have opposed providing any incentives to get people on probation to do the hard work of self-improvement. Taken together, those who have blocked reforms have made Pennsylvanians less safe.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s proven in data from other states. A probation system struggling under the weight of too many cases means that probation officers aren’t able to provide intense oversight of those who pose the highest risks to their communities. Having low-risk individuals on probation — sometimes for years — eats up resources.
Another reform long stalled in Harrisburg is to provide incentives for people to do the hard work of self-improvement. Stay crime-free, finish school, get a job — these are outcomes that demonstrate someone on probation is ready to “graduate.” But the law in Pennsylvania doesn’t allow for reductions in probation terms for those proven worthy by their actions.
As it stands, the only action probation authorities can take to influence someone under their supervision is a punitive one. Even when indigent individuals have made positive steps toward rehabilitation, they could have their probation extended or, even worse, revoked simply because they can’t afford to pay court fees and fines. Meanwhile, opportunities to prove one’s progress and suitability for an early end to their probation are nonexistent, meaning that taxpayers are left to foot the bill for months or years of unnecessary and costly supervision.
Over the past few years Pennsylvania legislators have attempted to address some of these issues, but they have yet to be successful.
So how do we fix a system that stretches probation officers too thin, fills prisons with technical violations and fails to incentivize good behavior?
First of all, Pennsylvania needs to put caps on probation terms. Studies show that most recidivism takes place in the first two years of probation. There is little public safety benefit for keeping someone on probation beyond three years. Most other states already have limits: other than for the most serious offenses, five years for most felonies and three or two years for most misdemeanors. There is no reason why Pennsylvania can’t do the same.
The commonwealth should also address so-called technical violations in a proportionate manner. “Technicals” are minor breaks in the rules — but not new crimes — that under current law, often result in prison. Examples include being late for a meeting with a probation officer, failing to pay court costs or consuming alcohol. There are other, more proportionate and effective ways to hold people accountable than returning them to a costly cell.
Finally, Pennsylvania needs to create a positive incentive structure that rewards individuals with shortened probation terms for positive accomplishments such as completing vocational training or participating in a rehabilitation program. Incentive-based programs like this are not new and excel in changing long-term behavior for the better.
When we consider all these policies together, we can begin to see a new future for probation in Pennsylvania. Probation can become a system that encourages personal growth and responsibility, rather than one that simply expects people to abide by intricate rules and regulations for long periods, often with no attachment to real gains in public safety.
Legislators should work together to pass probation reform this legislative session because at the end of the day, probation should serve as a second chance, not a prison sentence.