By Marianne Stein
Last year, the state Legislature came close to passing a probation reform bill. As it was introduced, that bill would have capped the length of probation sentences and ended the practice of extending or revoking probation for failure to pay court fines and costs.
Had those reforms been enacted into law, it would have been the most significant update to our probation system in decades.
But a few state lawmakers amended away the most significant reforms from the bill. Those efforts ultimately left an unrecognizable version of the original proposal; the bill ultimately failed to make it to the governor’s desk.
Now, some counties across the commonwealth are taking matters into their own hands to reform harmful probation rules. These counties know that we can’t afford to wait any longer to address Pennsylvania’s probation crisis.
For example, the County Chief Adult Probation and Parole Officers Association is working diligently to advance evidence-based practices (EBP) across the state. EBPs hold the promise of reducing recidivism, creating fewer victims, and improving individuals’ lives.
One of the principles of EBP is to routinely monitor and assess the client’s progress.
This lends opportunities for early termination of probation sentences. Helene Placey, executive director of the Pennsylvania County Chief Probation Officers Association, states that “a major hurdle to improving the county probation system is addressing high caseloads.
Pennsylvania county departments see an average of 105 individuals per probation officer. This is more than double the recommendation by the American Probation and Parole Association, which suggests caseloads of 50 individuals to one officer.”
Placey adds that “hard caps on probation terms, and incentivizing good behavior through the use of early termination of probation,” are the two simple ways to address these issues.
County probation departments, including those in Chester, Lancaster, and York counties, are setting a good example by using early termination as a common practice. This practice provides the person on probation with some light at the end of the tunnel, reducing the likelihood of future criminal behavior.
As a result of these reforms, the probation caseload and the county jail population have dropped significantly in York County. Probation officers are reportedly “engaged and excited about the results of their hard work,” according to county Chief April Billet.
Placey’s organization encourages this. The association supports ending probation sentences when one half of the sentence is completed or at 24 months, whichever is earlier, if the person has completed the conditions of their sentence with no violations.
And there’s good reasoning behind that thinking.
An April 2020 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that, if a person on probation commits a new crime, it typically happens within the first 10 to 18 months after their release into supervision. Longer probation sentences do not deliver better outcomes. They actually drive up caseloads, taxpayer costs, and expose individuals to revocation and possibly incarceration.
Still, incremental change by a handful of counties is simply not enough.
Pennsylvania is contributing to the never-ending revolving door in the criminal legal system. Our state lawmakers can, and must, do better.
There are approximately 178,000 people on probation in the commonwealth — more than double the state prison and jail populations combined. Supervision violations incarcerate 7,000 Pennsylvanians every day, and many of these are “technical violations” — offenses that would never be considered crimes on their own.
And, as with virtually every aspect of the criminal legal system, probation disproportionately impacts people of color — studies have shown time and again that Black and brown people are much more likely to have their probation revoked than white people.
We need a statewide package of probation reforms that include caps on the length of probation sentences and that prioritize our tax dollars for rehabilitation.
As it turns out, the state Legislature has another chance to do the right thing and reform probation in 2021.
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta. R-Washington, has introduced a new probation reform package this legislative session. The proposed reforms in SB 5 look promising, but we can’t settle for anything less than radical reimagining of how the state is enforcing probation terms, and we can’t allow bad-faith lawmakers to amend away the most important pieces of reform, like caps on the length of probation sentences.
We must prioritize rehabilitation instead of punishment.
Many counties are doing the right thing, but they need help from lawmakers to ensure long-lasting and meaningful reform. It’s time for the state legislature to step up and bring the commonwealth’s probation system into the 21st century and, finally, catch up with the rest of the nation.
Marianne Stein, a former probation officer, is the legislative associate with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.