The Pa. Legislature must do better on probation reform next session | Opinion

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By April Billet-Barclay

As the state Legislature’s session comes to a close, the window for advancing probation reform legislation also closes.

It is a good time to reflect on the fact that any approach towards meaningful probation reform be thoughtful and balance the needs of those in the probation system with the needs of those harmed by their actions.

Any changes to the probation system must be based in research and balance the goals of community protection, individual accountability, rehabilitation of individuals under court supervision, and victim restoration. 

Too often, systems are reactionary to incidences in the media with the pendulum swinging from one extreme to another. 

In addition to better investment in county probation offices, any future attempts at meaningful legislative reform to probation in the commonwealth next session must include hard caps on probation terms of 2- (misdemeanors) to 5- (felonies) years, and incentivize good behavior through the use of early termination of probation sentences.

Pennsylvania County Chief Probation Officers recognize the need to change and improve our responses to those we supervise. Our association is involved in a multi-year effort to implement evidence-based practices in all county adult probation departments. 

EBPs are the application of science into practice. These practices have been empirically tested and have been shown to reduce recidivism. There are several key components of EBP, including the use of an actuarial risk assessment tool to determine the drivers of criminal behavior. This is a large scale effort and will not change the county probation system overnight, but will create long term systemic change.

A major hurdle to reforming the County probation system is a lack of funding to address high caseloads and to assist with implementation of EBPs. 

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The average active caseload is 105 individuals per officer. This is more than double the recommendation of the American Probation and Parole Association, which suggests caseloads of 50 individuals to one officer. 

Additionally, implementing EBP requires an investment in time and money to bring officers up to speed with new research based practices that hold the promise to reduce recidivism and improve individuals lives, thereby, creating safer communities.

Two factors contribute to these high caseloads: the number of individuals sentenced to probation, and the length of time they are under supervision.

Studies show that reduced caseloads, in combination with evidence-based practices, can lead to improved recidivism outcomes. A report from the PEW Trusts shows that for individuals on probation, committing a new crime typically happens within the first 10 to 18 months. 

Probation terms that last for years often fail to deliver better outcomes compared to shorter periods of supervision. It drives up caseloads, taxpayer costs, and exposes individuals to revocation and possibly incarceration.

The practice of early termination of probation is currently permitted in statute and is common practice in some counties.

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Early termination policies incentivize an individual’s behavior change reducing the likelihood of future criminal behavior. Presumptive early termination should be considered when the individual completes one-half of the original probation term or at 24 months, whichever is earlier.

As long as the individual successfully completes all conditions of their probation sentence with no violations, the early termination should be automatically processed and approved by the court. 

Waiting for a review at three or five years, as current legislation proposes, is too long to have any meaningful impact. These two changes alone will begin to reduce caseload sizes allowing probation officers to focus on quality supervision through the use of EBP.

Finally, it is imperative that Pennsylvania provide more funding to County probation. Increased funding will allow county probation departments to further address caseload size and fully implement evidence-based practices, which hold the promise to truly reform county probation.

Our association stands committed to being a partner in working towards meaningful reform with all stakeholders during the next legislative session.

April Billet-Barclay is the president of the  County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania, and the director of York County Probation Services.