Probation in Pennsylvania Keeps People Trapped in the Cycle of Incarceration

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by Elizabeth Randol

Imagine a world in which you can be detained by police and thrown in jail for taking a phone call from a family member. Or for walking down the same street in your neighborhood that you’ve been taking for years. Or for getting laid off from your job.

When an individual is sentenced to probation in Pennsylvania, the government imposes dozens of onerous conditions upon them. These conditions can include a prohibition on traveling outside of the county, forbidding conversation with certain people (basically anyone a probation officer deems disreputable), random and invasive drug testing, home inspections, and a requirement that the person on probation be in their home during certain hours. Those on probation are subject to near-constant government surveillance and supervision.

“Technical violations,” or non-compliance with any of the numerous conditions of probation, behavior which would never be considered a crime can send that person back to jail for weeks, months, and sometimes years. A study recently released by the Council of State Governments found that 25% of 2017 prison admissions were for technical violations of supervision and 54% of all prison admissions were for supervision violations — clear evidence that probation and parole are key drivers of mass incarceration in PA.

Pennsylvania is also one of just a handful of states that fails to impose a cap on the length of the probation sentences. Pennsylvania judges have the discretion to dole out probation sentences that can last years, even decades. Living for years with the fear that the smallest misstep will send you back to jail as the government is breathing down your neck every moment is no way to live a life.

Last month, Senator Lisa Baker, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held two days of public hearings regarding probation and parole terms in the commonwealth — a welcome and laudable effort intended to help the committee get their arms around how these complex systems work in Pennsylvania and the minefields people must navigate as they return to their families and communities.

One person who testified and shared her story was Latonya “T” Meyers. T spent nine months in jail even though she was eventually acquitted — she did not have enough money to pay bail. Soon after returning home, T had enrolled in community college and became an advocate for other people in reentry, joining the Defender Association of Philadelphia as a full-time staffer.

But after a flawless record on parole that led her parole officer to not even require regular check-ins, T’s supervision shifted to probation. That’s where the trouble started. Because of risk assessment algorithm, T was labeled “high risk” and ordered to check in with her probation officer weekly.

T had to miss work once a week (thankfully her bosses understood) to check in with her probation officer, who told her that because of her high-risk status, she would never be able to ease the terms of her probation until 2027.

When the city of Philadelphia presented T with an award for being an up and coming leader for those in reentry, T’s probation officer was not in attendance. Instead, she was writing an arrest warrant for T, who was late to their scheduled meeting because she was receiving her award. Her probation officer never acknowledged the award, only asking T the same mundane questions she was asked every week: Did you move? Did you change your phone number? And so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Pennsylvania Senate is currently considering a bill, Senate Bill 14, that would reform probation in the commonwealth by capping probation terms and mandating early termination of probation after a certain period with no violations, among other badly needed reforms.

Probation reform and smart criminal justice reform are not partisan issues or ideological issues. Individuals and organizations across the political spectrum want to see bold, meaningful change. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania urge the Pennsylvania Senate to move swiftly when they return to session to pass S.B.14 and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to take it up as soon as possible.

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians languishing on needlessly long and punishing probation terms are in desperate need of this reform. Legislators should act accordingly.

Take action to support S.B.14 here.

Elizabeth Randol is the Legislative Director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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