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(*This story was updated at 3:37 p.m. on Friday, June 23, 2023 to correctly note the length of the extension of Reginald Smaller’s probation term.)
For Reginald Smaller, getting an *extra year tacked onto his probation term for a technical violation was “like going back to jail.”
In 2016, Smaller, who’d served consecutive sentences in state prison, was seriously injured and hospitalized after he was hit by a drunk driver on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia. That meant he was unable to report to his probation officer, he told the Capital-Star recently.
And that failure to report — despite being put into a coma — resulted in a violation, he said.
For Smaller, who said he’d led an otherwise exemplary life since his release from custody, the news was a gut punch.
“I broke my jaw. I had brain bleeding and a dislocated pelvis,” he said. “Even now, sometimes, I might stutter or slur my words. That’s attributable to the accident.”
But now, Smaller and other formerly incarcerated people are hopeful that a probation reform bill making its way through the General Assembly means it will be easier for them to meet the conditions of their probation, reducing their chances of returning to custody, and improving their odds of a productive return to society.
The bill, which could come before the full chamber as soon as next week, would, among other things, help people to “safely exit the supervision system in a timely manner,” according to analysis by the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice advocacy group that has spent years pushing for the changes.
It also would narrow the legal definition of technical violations and the circumstances under which people are returned to custody because of them, that analysis indicated.
“The legislation would improve community safety by incentivizing activities proven to reduce recidivism, like education and employment, through a system of earned time credits for people on probation, which accelerates the opportunity for case reviews and early discharge,” the group wrote in its analysis.
“These reforms are overdue for our communities,” state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Recidivism hurts more than just the individuals caught in the endless cycle of incarceration. It’s expensive in this state’s bottom line, and causes irreparable harm to families and folks who have served their time and are trying to get back on their feet.”
The bill will “improve Pennsylvania’s probation system by addressing serious flaws, which have trapped nonviolent offenders in a cycle of incarceration,” Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, another co-sponsor, said during Thursday’s hearing, according to the REFORM Alliance. “Probation is supposed to be a pathway out of the criminal justice system.”
Advocates “worked hard to bring important improvements to [the bill],” and Thursday’s committee vote was “an important step toward meaningful reform that truly prioritizes public safety and rehabilitation, putting people on probation on a path toward stability,” Jessica Jackson, of the REFORM Alliance, said in a statement.
The advocacy group is “looking forward to championing the bill through the legislative process and [hopes] the Legislature swiftly passes this bill into law. Pennsylvanians have waited long enough,” Jackson added.
Out of the 50 states and Washington D.C., Pennsylvania ranks 13th nationwide for mass punishment, with 244,000 people behind bars or under some kind of supervision, recent data show.
That’s a rate of 1,825 people for every 100,000 residents, according to research released last month by the Prison Policy Initiative, which took a look at incarceration and supervision rates by state.
During his first budget address in March, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro called specific attention to the state’s probation and parole system, exhorting lawmakers to fix it.
The “probation and parole systems were originally designed to help people get back on their feet and keep them out of prison,” Shapiro, the former, two-term state attorney general, observed, adding “that’s not what’s happening in reality.”
The commonwealth has a 64% recidivism rate, the Democratic governor said, meaning that nearly two-thirds of “the people who walk out of our prisons will go back, many of them for nonviolent, technical parole violations.
“The first step in improving this system is investing in probation and parole services to reduce caseloads, improve training, and enhance services,” Shapiro continued.
Because “the more time a [probation officer] can spend with an individual, the more help they can provide as they look for a job, find an apartment, and settle into a successful life,” Shapiro told lawmakers, adding that while such investments will help, lawmakers also need to “put responsible limits on probation terms.”
Advocates generally believe those terms should last no longer than two years.
Speaking to the Capital-Star, Smaller agreed, arguing that the extended term of his probation got in the way of his plans to move out of Pennsylvania’s largest city and start his life over again.
“It hindered me being able to further my opportunities … I felt like I was going back to jail,” he said.
If he had the chance to make the pitch to legislators on why they should support the bill, Smaller said he’d tell them that the current system is a “one-size fits all curriculum, and the good people, like myself, a model parolee, [get] entangled in that web.
“It’s not conducive to rehabilitate and help us reenter back into society and become a civilized person to society again. Trying to send me back to jail – that’s not only affecting me, I have two children, That affects my family. It puts the pressure back on them,” he said.
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