Pa’s broken probation laws are fuel for the mass incarceration crisis. We need to fix them now | Opinion

September 20, 2019 6:30 am

Derrell Key, of Pittsburgh, talks about what it’s like to be on probation in Pennsylvania (ScreenCapture)

By Derrell Key

When I came home on probation in 2013, my probation officer told me that he’d give me six months before I was back behind bars. I couldn’t believe that he’d say that so brazenly, but I took it as a challenge.

Six years later, that now-former probation officer is a good friend of mine, and calls me his “greatest inspiration” for how I have navigated my time on probation. Despite my spotless record since 2013, I am scheduled to be on probation until the year 2027.

Let me tell you what it’s like to be on probation in Pennsylvania.

People on probation in Pennsylvania are given curfews and must be in their house during that time, even if it interferes with their work hours. If they lose a job, that’s a violation that could land them back in jail.

People on probation must meet with their probation officer on a regular basis. Again, if that meeting interferes with work, well, too bad.

People on probation can’t interact with anyone else under state supervision because it is a violation that could land them back in jail. That restriction even prohibits them from supporting reentry and integration programs for formerly incarcerated people returning home.

People on probation must pay fines, restitution, court costs, and supervision fees that eat up what is often a significant portion of our income. We also have to pay our bills on time and pay rent to maintain stable housing — failure to do so is also a violation.

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But what hurts the most about being under state supervision like probation is that you constantly feel like you’re under government surveillance and that you need to walk on eggshells every second of every day or risk going back to jail for behavior that would never be considered a crime by someone not on probation or parole.

Since I was released in 2013, I’ve paid off all my fines and fees.

I’ve put myself through school. I’ve started a small business. I’m in the process of earning my real estate license. I’m a good father. I don’t drink or do drugs. What more does Pennsylvania need from me?

Earlier this year, I wanted to take my kids to King’s Dominion, the amusement park in Virginia. Because I was planning to cross a state line, I had to check in with my probation officer. The questions I had to answer, for me, a grown man and father, were humiliating.

I had to tell my probation officer how long I would be gone. Which hotel I would be staying at. Which room I would be staying in. What hours I would be in and out of my hotel room. Who, if anyone, I would be interacting with outside of my family. Who is a contact person at the hotel. Am I renting a car. What kind of car. Which highways I’m planning to travel.

And on and on — all this for a family vacation.

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Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states where there are no limits to the amount of time that a person can be placed on probation. That’s why I’ll be under supervision for almost another decade despite my spotless probation record since 2013.

In Pennsylvania, a single probation violation can mean that your entire supervision term restarts, a policy that is in effect in only a small number of states. That means that if I violate in 2026, I could be resentenced to probation until 2040. That would also mean that I would be under state supervision for almost 40 years.

The problem is real.

Parole and probation violators comprise more than half of all new admissions to Pennsylvania jails and prisons. This is not a system of rehabilitation. It’s a system of near-guaranteed recidivism.

Pennsylvania has more people under probation or parole supervision than all but two other states in the nation. It’s far past time to address this crisis.

Fortunately, a bill before the Pennsylvania Senate right now would go a long way towards realizing meaningful probation reform.

Senate Bill 14 would place caps on the length of time a person can be on probation — a policy that 43 other states already have implemented.

The bill would mandate a reduction of probation terms for good behavior. The bill would also prohibit the use of technical violations of probation as punishment for unpaid fees and court costs, a policy that effectively criminalizes being poor.

Pennsylvania’s broken probation laws continue to fuel the mass incarceration crisis across the commonwealth and need to be fixed now.

People like me who have played by the rules and are only looking to move on with our lives — without the government needlessly hanging over our heads — are desperately waiting for a change.

Derrell Key writes from Pittsburgh.

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