Safe and Smart: Restructuring Pa.’s Probation System

CF’s newest policy brief, Safer Communities, Smarter Spending, provides a unique look at the problems in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. The commonwealth’s incarceration rate is too high. Its supervision population is too large. And it maintains too many barriers to success for people who want to turn their life around.

But these problems aren’t insurmountable. In fact, our brief lays out sensible solutions to improve public safety by reducing the state’s supervised population (people in prison or jail, people on probation, etc.) and eliminating barriers to success for those who will eventually leave prison—a figure which exceeds more than 90 percent of people incarcerated.

Over the next few weeks, CF will be highlighting the solutions for Pennsylvania’s criminal justice woes to help guide future discussions about how a fair criminal justice system ought to operate. This first blog in our Safe and Smart series focuses on restructuring the state’s probation system.

Pennsylvania’s statewide community supervision population—defined as people on probation and parole—is the second highest rate among reporting states, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This raises an important question: does state supervision of people on probation and parole make communities safer? Yes, to some extent.

The evidence suggests most cases of recidivism occur within the first year of a person’s probation. After this point, sentences generally become counterproductive, as they increase the likelihood of a technical violation. Such a violation can result in unnecessarily long prison stays. Policymakers should turn their attention to the type of intervention—one that is swift, certain, and fair—rather than the length of a sentence. The former is much more effective in combating recidivism.

Acknowledging the evidence on effective punishment, Senator Anthony Williams has introduced Senate Bill 1067. The proposal would begin to address the problems with Pennsylvania’s probation system by limiting the amount of time served for a minor parole violation and allowing for the early termination of parole for good behavior.

Other states have adopted Sen. Williams’ approach with success. In Missouri, lawmakers adopted a policy of “earned discharge,” allowing people to reduce the length of their probation if they complied with their sentences. The result was an 18 percent drop in the state’s supervised population with no adverse effect on recidivism.

Reducing the commonwealth’s abnormal probation case load will free up time and other resources for those people who do pose a high risk of recidivating. By focusing on people who need the most help, policymakers can improve public safety and repeal punitive sentences that impose physical, emotional, and financial costs on people both inside and outside the criminal justice system.