Pennsylvania spends over $100 million annually to incarcerate people for technical violations of probation and parole, according to a new report. That’s about one-third of the total amount the state spends to house people who have violated the terms of their release.
Probation and parole allow people to avoid prison or be released early under certain conditions. But on a typical day, more than 7,400 people in Pennsylvania are incarcerated for violating the requirements of their release.
Most in that group end up behind bars after committing new crimes. But state corrections secretary John Wetzel said many make less serious mistakes that nonetheless violate the rules of their release. For example, they might fail a drug test or miss a meeting with a parole officer.
“The reality of it is that oftentimes these technical parole violations, when they result in incarceration, really lead to further crime and further violation,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel said supervision requirements make it harder for people on probation and parole to keep jobs or get treatment for substance abuse.
“It really has forced us to really look at our rules: Are they realistic? Do they make sense? Do they correlate to an enhancement of public safety, or are we setting individuals up to fail?” the secretary said.
He added that, while the corrections department has examined the issue closely in recent years, legislation is needed to reduce the length of probation and parole sentences.
The new data are part of a national study on parole and probation violations. The Council of State Governments Justice Center conducted the research with support from the Arnold Ventures foundation and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
They found that, across the U.S., 45 percent of state prison admissions result from probation and parole violations, which include new crimes and breaking supervision rules. In 20 states including Pennsylvania, the data show, more than half of prison admissions are due to such violations.
The research does not include county-level statistics, even though counties supervise the vast majority of probationers -- and operate the jails that often house those who commit violations. Wetzel said this gap reflects a general lack of information on county probation.
On a call with reporters Tuesday, researchers suggested a number of reforms such as limiting probation and parole supervision rules, and offering early release from supervision to those who follow the rules.
Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, said the new data should be “a wake-up call to state corrections leaders, lawmakers, and the public.”
“If we want to address mass incarceration,” she added, “we need to pay attention and take some decisive steps on probation and parole.”