Just hours after rapper Meek Mill was freed from prison over a controversial parole violation, a new study shows that Pennsylvania’s parole rate is the highest in the nation – and it’s a problem that’s getting worse.
A new report from Columbia University’s Justice Lab found that the number of residents subject to so-called “community supervision” – including both probation and parole programs – is nearly triple the national average. Today, Pennsylvania has 296,000 residents under combined supervision – nearly enough to fill the entire city of Pittsburgh.
Authored by researcher Vincent Schiraldi, the study finds that the state is not only an outlier in terms of scale but also that its supervision rates have continued to increase – even as they have fallen in other states.
Schiraldi, a former New York state probation commissioner, said that many of the probation and parole guidelines currently in place in Pennsylvania are more punitive than those in other jurisdictions.
“In New York, you couldn’t be on probation for 10 years like Meek was in Pennsylvania. He would have been out in five years,” he said.
The negative impacts of the excessive use of lengthy probation and parole terms – many of which were cited in a City & State investigation cited in Schiraldi’s report – can create a “detention trap,” continually cycling sometimes low-level offenders in and out of the prison system as punishment for violations or re-arrest.
Today, nearly one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison beds are filled with probation or parole violators, at a cost to the state of some $420 million annually. Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said these impacts were disproportionately felt in Black and Latino communities, which are policed at higher rates.
“Probation is an invisible net that ensnares a large population of our city, mostly people of color,” she said. “These residents are constantly under threat of re-incarceration for things that are not criminal.”
Historically, policymakers pitched longer probation and parole terms as a safety feature. But excessive supervision – particularly for low-level offenders – can sometimes lead to an increased likelihood of re-offense, according to Schiraldi.
“The positive impacts of supervision wanes after a year or two,” he said. “People start to view it as an oppressive state and they start to act in ways they (authorities) don’t want them to act. They shun law enforcement and police, and then it’s the government struggling against its own communities.”
The impact is also felt by probation and parole officers as they struggle to manage increasing caseloads. A lack of close oversight also drives a pattern of re-incarceration.
“They’re risk-averse,” Schiraldi said of the officers. “If you take a chance on not locking someone up for a violation and they re-offend, you could get demoted.”
But other states have experimented successfully with ways of weaning law enforcement off of excessive supervisory systems. Arizona began shaving off time for good behavior and Louisiana began limiting punishment for the first few technical violations, like failed drug tests.
A probation reform bill is pending in Harrisburg, but some local officials called for swifter reform the current system. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, who ran on reforming criminal justice systems, issued a public plea to other county prosecutors to reevaluate their use of community supervision.
“For too long, Pennsylvania has been drunk on incarceration and supervision to feed the political ambitions of lawmakers and prosecutors,” he said, in a prepared statement released concurrently with the report. “Pennsylvania’s prosecutors have caused an epidemic of over-incarceration. In Philadelphia, we are stepping up by imposing policies that turn away from excessive sentencing and excessive supervision. I ask my fellow prosecutors in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to join us.”
While the Meek Mill case brought the issue of excessive probation and parole terms into the public eye, Schiraldi said, many more Pennsylvanians were needlessly suffering.
“A lot of people think of probation or parole as a break or a slap on the wrist. But it’s become an add-on to incarceration,” he said. “When you cast a net that wide, you will catch some sharks. But you will also catch a lot of minnows.”