Pennsylvania is one of three states featured in a new report that details how probation and parole have swelled U.S. prison populations by “often [setting] people up to fail.”
The “problem is particularly acute” in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia, where probation and parole account for especially high proportions of jail and prison admissions, according to Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. The groups published the 200-plus-page study Friday.
“Over the last 50 years, the use of probation and parole has skyrocketed right alongside jail and prison populations,” report author Allison Frankel said shortly after the paper’s release. As of 2016, Frankel noted, one in every 55 people in the U.S. were under some form of court or corrections supervision.
Probation allows people to avoid being incarcerated upon conviction, while parole allows prisoners to be released early. In both situations, individuals are subject to rules set by judges or corrections officials. For example, those under supervision can be required to attend meetings with a parole or probation officer, take random drug tests, or pay court fines. While it might not qualify as a crime to break certain rules, such “technical violations” can be punished with time behind bars or more time under supervised release.
“Parole becomes a life sentence,” ACLU national campaign strategist Lewis Conway told reporters Friday. “It’s almost as if the original sentence is never-ending.”
Conway spent eight years in a Texas prison and 12 years under parole supervision. While on parole, Conway said, his criminal history made it hard to get a job, as required under the terms of his release.
“When I came home, McDonald’s wouldn’t hire me,” Conway said. And he added that in the ensuing years, he struggled to find housing and sometimes turned to substance use, a parole violation that landed him back in jail. Such challenges, Conway noted, are among “the root drivers" of why some commit new crimes while under supervision.
Philadelphia resident Valerie Listman noted that upon her release from prison, she was determined to do “whatever it took” to comply with the terms of her parole. But after seven years with no infractions, Listman said, she fell on “some hard times financially.” The nonprofit where she worked struggled to secure grant funding, and as a result Listman said, she failed to make a court payment and was threatened with house arrest, incarceration, and a curfew.
Frankel, the report’s author, added that probation and parole disproportionately impact racial minorities.
“Given generations of structural racism, Black and brown people are less likely to have the resources necessary to navigate [supervision] rules, and more likely to get arrested and found to be in violation of their conditions,” Frankel said.
“To be clear, the system … is unfair for everyone," Frankel continued. “We found that in many places, people are regularly locked up for months just waiting for a hearing to contest the allegation that they violated their probation or parole.”
Parole violations specifically accounted for nearly half of Pennsylvania prison admissions between 2013 and 2018, according to Friday’s report. Similar state-level data is not available for probation violations. But the report adds that national data show that 28 percent of state and federal prison admissions in 2018 resulted from probation and parole violations. At state prisons alone, both types of infractions drove 45 percent of admissions in 2017.
The study notes that Pennsylvania’s overall prison population, which stands at more than 41,000 today, has fallen by 6 percent since 2011. The number of people imprisoned due to parole violations, however, increased by 40 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to a 21-percent drop in the number of people incarcerated for other reasons, including new convictions and probation violations.
Observing trends like Pennsylvania’s, Friday's study concludes, “Arbitrary and overly harsh supervision regimes have led people back into U.S. jails and prisons – feeding mass incarceration.”
The report urges federal, state, and local governments to “divest from probation, parole, and incarceration.” Similar to those who have called for defunding the police in the midst of nationwide "Black Lives Matter" protests, the report argues that by investing in education, employment opportunities, substance use treatment, and other resources, communities can steer vulnerable populations away from the criminal justice system.
“By choosing to invest in communities over supervision and confinement, governments can work to break the supervision-to-incarceration pipeline,” Frankel said.
Pennsylvania lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to ease the state’s probation rules. Last year, the state House and Senate both took up bills that would prohibit probation sentences longer than two or three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies. Today, the supervision can last as long as the maximum sentence the probationer would have faced if confined.
The bills underwent dramatic changes, however, after some prosecutors and probation officers raised objections. Amendments to both proposals, for example, would require probationers to appear for review hearings before a judge could decide whether to end their supervision. Those convicted of misdemeanors would need to wait three years for a “probation review conference,” while those convicted of felonies would be required to wait five years.
The state Senate passed the amended legislation earlier this month, but the House proposal remains in committee.
The ACLU, which originally embraced the legislation, dropped its support following amendments to the House version late last year. In its new report with Human Rights Watch, the civil liberties organization asserted that the changes would “make probation substantially worse.”