Should Pa. Wreck Lives Over a Technicality?

Pennsylvania’s correctional system has a “revolving door” problem. Over 63 percent of the correctional population will return to prison within three years.

To change Pennsylvania’s reputation as “imprisonment king” of the Northeast, we need to shut that revolving door. Probation violations account for nearly one-quarter of prison admissions—so let’s start by reforming probation practices.

While some probation violations involve new crimes, others are for technical violations, including:

  • Failure to pay a fine or restitution
  • Missing an appointment with a probation officer
  • Inability to maintain employment
  • Changing residence without permission
  • Not completing counseling
  • Frequenting disreputable places or “consorting with disreputable persons”
  • Other conditions “reasonably related to the rehabilitation of the defendant” which can include purchasing a vehicle or staying out past curfew

These terms contribute to increased rearrests of low-risk individuals. Long probation terms create more opportunities for violations, which extend probation or lead to additional incarceration…and the cycle continues.

The result? Probationers may spend more time on probation or incarcerated than the original crime warranted.

The Department of Corrections estimates sending probationers to prison for technical violations and minor crimes costs $7.3 million each year. More concerning, prisons—designed for long-term, higher-level offenders—are housing low-level offenders.

It’s a truism of criminal justice reform that prison is where low-level offenders learn to become hardened criminals.

You might think more supervision and strict probation terms for all probationers would reduce recidivism rates, but it doesn’t. In fact, the opposite is true, according to the Council of State Governments:

Focusing supervision time, treatment, and programming resources on people who are at a high risk of reoffending can decrease their likelihood of reoffending, while focusing those resources on people who are at a low risk of reoffending can increase their likelihood of reoffending.

Recidivism rates significantly increase after the first year of supervision, meaning extended probation can unnecessarily hurt peoples’ chances of a successful transition.

Luckily, Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed bipartisan legislation to reform probation.

Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Sens. Anthony Williams and Camera Bartolotta, would minimize punishments for technical violations, reasonably cap probation lengths, and reward good behavior.

In the House, Reps. Jordan Harris and Sheryl Delozier also plan to introduce probation reform. According to Harris:

We need to incentivize people who are doing the right thing…And when we know they’re doing the right thing, we need to shorten their time.

The package of reforms known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative II provides more comprehensive criminal justice reforms—all measures that will supplement Senate and House probation reforms to promote public safety and reduce recidivism.

The correctional system doesn’t have to be a “revolving door.” The best way to change that is to make probation and parole fair and effective.