Probation in Pa. keeps people trapped in the cycle of incarceration | Opinion

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By Elizabeth Randol and Ashley Klingensmith

Pennsylvania’s current probation and parole laws set individuals up for failure, not success.

Consider the case of Derrell Key. Derrell’s story crystallizes the dissonance in our criminal justice system: We ask returning citizens to be contributing members of society, but we make it difficult for them to do so.

First arrested as a juvenile at the age of fifteen, Derrell has been in prison, jail, or on probation ever since. He’s now 32.

Ten years ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, Derrell was struggling to find a job. After telling his probation officer that he was having a hard time finding work, his probation officer threatened to send him back to jail if he didn’t find a job in 30 days.

Desperate and discouraged, Derrell started dealing drugs to make ends meet while unemployed. He was arrested for dealing and sentenced to twenty years, five in prison and fifteen on probation. After he got out of prison, Derrell’s new probation officer told him he’d be back behind bars in six months.

But Derrell had other plans.

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Six years later, Derrell has finished school and held a steady job for the duration. He notes that he put in the work to achieve this without the help of his probation officer, who now calls him a model probationer. But, Derrell wonders, what are probation and parole officers really meant to do – help and support people or send them back to prison?

When an individual is sentenced to probation in Pennsylvania, the government imposes numerous onerous conditions upon them.

These conditions can include restrictions on travel outside of their county, bans on conversation with anyone a probation officer might deem disreputable, random and invasive drug testing, home inspections, and requirements that the person on probation be in their home during certain hours.

Those on probation are subject to near-constant government surveillance and supervision. Pennsylvania is also one of just a handful of states that fails to impose a cap on the length of the probation sentences. Pennsylvania judges have the discretion to dole out probation sentences that can last years, even decades.

This community supervision period following incarceration should be an opportunity to help returning citizens get back on their feet, but too often it traps people in a cycle of recidivism.

“Technical violations,” or non-compliance with any of the numerous conditions of probation – behavior which would otherwise never be considered a crime – can send individuals back to jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years.

A study recently released by the Council of State Governments found that 25 percent of 2017 prison admissions were for technical violations of supervision, and 54% of all prison admissions were for supervision violations — clear evidence that probation and parole are a key driver of over-incarceration in Pennsylvania.

This wastes taxpayer dollars – the report estimated these technical supervision infractions collectively cost states $2.8 billion annually – and strains law enforcement resources that could otherwise be used protecting public safety.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This week, Pennsylvania legislators are conducting public hearings regarding probation and parole terms in the commonwealth. Now is the time to speak up and urge them to reform probation and parole laws so that the system is fairer and ends the revolving door that cycles people between their communities and jails.

The Pennsylvania Senate is currently considering legislation (SB14), sponsored by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, that would cap probation terms, mandate early termination of probation after a certain period with no violations, and make other badly needed reforms.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and Americans For Prosperity might not always align on policy, but we agree that the cycle of recidivism must be broken. Returning citizens are not liabilities to manage, but rather individuals who deserve an opportunity to rise and pursue lives of fulfillment.

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians languish on needlessly long and punishing probation terms and are in desperate need of this reform. We urge legislators to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves and pass Williams’ legislation.

Elizabeth Randol is the legislative director for the Pennsylvania office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ashley Klingensmith is the Pennsylvania state director of Americans for Prosperity.

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