Rallying for Probation Reform

Earlier this week, hundreds of activists gathered in the capitol in support of probation reform.

Here’s what Pennsylvanians impacted by the probation system have to say:

“I couldn’t take [my son] to see the doctor he needed to see because it was out of the county. I’m a single mom, and it was really tough money-wise, especially having to pay the monthly ‘supervision fee.’” – Jamie Williams, 5-year term.  

“I have been at the county office 84 times. Sometimes I wait hours before being seen, making me late to work. I’ve been denied jobs for still being on probation even though my record is from seven years ago! I have three children all under the age of five. So it is already a hassle for me to provide sufficiently for them. And I have over $9,000 left in fines.” – Geneia Rice, 10-year probation sentence.

“My confidence really took a hit during this time. I was working hard in the community…but when I had opportunities to travel to D.C. and other places for events, I just threw in the towel and didn’t go because of all the hoops I would have to jump through to get permission from my probation officer to travel.” – Taili Thompson, 3-year term.

(Read more stories here.)

Supporters and speakers came from across the ideological aisle (including FAMM, ACLU, Americans for Prosperity, and Commonwealth Foundation)—and they have public backing. According to a poll released by the Justice Action Network, 75% of Pennsylvanians support probation reform.

Unlike parole, judges give probation sentences instead of or in addition to prison. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of just four states allowing probation lengths to equal the statutory maximum sentence—long terms increasing the likelihood of technical violations.

Long terms add to Pennsylvania's probation population—fifth highest in the nation–and, in turn, incarceration. Probation violations account for nearly one-quarter of prison admissions.

Senate Bill 14 (Sens. Bartolotta and Williams) and House Bill 1555 (Reps. Jordan Harris and Sheryl Delozier) would:

  • Incentivize and reward individuals who demonstrate they want to succeed by offering earned time-off sentence credits and the ability to petition for early release for good behavior.
  • Break down barriers to success by amending technical violation guidelines and punishments, and enhancing due process requirements for alleged technical violations.
    • Technical violations are not new crimes, but technicalities such as missing an appointment, changing residence, or getting a speeding ticket.
  • Join the majority of states in limiting probation terms to two years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies. It would further ban consecutive probation terms.

Reducing the commonwealth’s abnormal probation case load will free resources for those people in most need of supervision—improving public safety and reducing the physical, emotional, and financial costs to those inside and outside the criminal justice system.