By Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, Pennsylvania ACLU
Pennsylvania has one of the highest correctional supervision rates in the country. And while many states are rolling back their supervision systems, Pennsylvania’s is growing, thanks in part to excessively long probation sentences and overinflated parole terms.
More than half of the people sitting in the Allegheny Jail are being held, not because they have been convicted of a crime, but because they are accused of violating a condition of probation. Allegheny County sends more people to prison for parole violations than for new crimes. But it need not be this way: Allegheny County’s district attorney can take immediate steps to dramatically reduce the harm that supervision has inflicted on our community.
When a person is on probation, even for minor offenses, like marijuana possession or disorderly conduct; or legal behaviors, like missing an appointment or running late, can land a person back in jail on what is known as a “detainer.” People on supervision must fulfill numerous obligations that often have no relationship to public safety but make it almost impossible to rebuild a normal life. Supervision meetings in the middle of the day interfere with work, random drug-testing appointments interfere with childcare, and monthly probation fees take money directly out of families’ mouths.
What’s more, the hiccups of everyday life, like running late, forgetting an appointment, or getting pulled over, can mean incarceration for a person on supervision. Incarceration has devastating impacts on an individual and a community. An incarcerated individual cannot contribute to her family’s income or stability, leaving the families of incarcerated people at higher risk of losing their housing and at higher risk of having negative outcomes for their children. Even a brief period of incarceration can destroy an individual’s economic mobility, making it less likely they will be able to contribute productively to their community in the future.
At the end of 2017, nearly 25,000 people were on probation, and another 5,000 people were on parole in Allegheny County alone. With an adult population of just under a million people, that means 1 in 34 adults is under supervision here. That rate is 36% higher than the national average. Allegheny County’s enormous supervision crisis is driven, in part, by excessive probation terms: its average misdemeanor probation sentence is 30 months, and the average felony probation sentence is 60 months.
No one should be kept under supervision for that long. Research has shown that these long supervision terms harm public safety because the conditions make it so difficult for people to maintain employment and housing. Lengthy probation terms simply function as a tripwire, where technical violations for non-criminal behavior, such as missing appointments with a probation officer, drive probation revocations and reincarceration—not new crimes.
Although lengthy supervision provides no public safety benefit, Allegheny taxpayers foot the enormous costs for this crisis. Allegheny County employs 133 probation officers at a cost of more than $8.6 million a year. Those assigned to “low-risk” supervisees carry an average caseload of 965 people each, meaning that each officer would have to see 48 people every workday just to check in each month. (The recommended number of “low-risk” supervisees per officer is 200.) Not surprisingly, most of these “low-risk” individuals have no contact with their probation officers beyond an initial meeting. And yet, 86 percent of those on “low-risk” probation succeed, not because they benefited from supervision but because they did not need supervision in the first place.
It does not have to be this way. Allegheny County’s district attorney and other elected officials can take direct action to address Allegheny County’s mass supervision crisis. It is time for actors at every level of our political system—from Allegheny County’s district attorney to our elected representatives in Harrisburg—to come together to address this crisis.
In fact, earlier this year, SB14, a bipartisan bill to dramatically limit the amount of time a person can be kept on probation, was introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate. And earlier this month, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner shortened the supervision terms that his prosecutors may request during negotiated pleas. It is now time for our elected prosecutor in Allegheny County to take affirmative steps to reduce the county’s supervision problem, both by limiting supervision terms and vocally supporting legislative action. Such a policy will save the county money, provide better supervision and programming to those who truly need it, and promote both rehabilitation and public safety.
Shuford is an attorney and has been executive director of the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union since 2011. aclupa.org