PDAA Supports Meaningful Changes to Pennsylvania’s Probation System

December 9, 2019

Probation serves an important series of functions in our criminal justice system.  It is meant to deter future criminal behavior, help rehabilitate the offender, ensure compliance with treatment to address the offender’s criminogenic needs, serve as a form of punishment, provide an alternative to incarceration, and serve as a useful mechanism to increase the likelihood of payment of victim restitution.  It also can help provide more appropriate supervision than state parole.

Despite these worthy goals, Pennsylvania’s system can and should be meaningfully improved.  As a result, some criminal justice reform advocates have offered critiques of the application of probation, noting that it can set people up for failure, is often too long, and sometimes results in unnecessary prison sentences following revocations for failing to adhere to probation conditions.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association agrees with these sentiments and believes that meaningful improvements to our county probation system can and should be made through the legislative process. From the beginning, we have been engaged in active and ongoing discussions with the advocates who have championed change, judges, victims’ groups, and others to help craft a bill that makes sense for Pennsylvania. Our goal is a better probation system without unintended consequences, such as reduced public safety, reductions in collected restitution, or increased incarceration.

The key to probation reform is a balanced approach. We can and should significantly improve our probation system by providing meaningful incentives to those on probation.  For most individuals, three to five years of supervision, depending on the gravity of the offense, should be sufficient.  Research makes clear that probation that is too long fails to provide any appreciable benefit and may actually have a detrimental effect.

Of course, there are important common-sense exceptions that need to be considered.  Longer supervision periods may be necessary for those that commit especially violent crimes, crimes of domestic violence, or sexual assaults.  Those who have criminogenic needs and require substance abuse or mental health treatment or who could benefit from checking in with their probation officer or the court frequently can benefit from a longer period of supervision.  Those who continue to violate the terms of their probation or those who simply pose a specific danger to public safety may need longer periods of supervision as well.

Pennsylvania’s prosecutors, through the PDAA, have articulated their belief that to achieve these goals, reform must have both appropriate incentives and protections.  For example, the system should provide for a presumption of termination after a specific number of years, except in specifically defined circumstances, such as those mentioned above. For those that violate their terms of probation but have not committed a new crime, specific limits on the amount of time that person can be incarcerated for such a violation should be limited, unless the person has repeatedly violated probation. We also believe that the length of a person’s probation can be reduced if he or she has achieved certain milestones, such as acquiring a GED.

Limitless probation does not work; targeted probation does.  Overly punitive probation has negative consequences; probation with targeted consequences and incentives for positive behavior helps build stronger communities.

From the very beginning of this conversation, we have said there is a way to improve the current probation system while simultaneously ensuring that those who remain dangerous, are in continued need of treatment, have not paid all of their restitution, or continue to violate the terms of their probation can remain under supervision.   The discussions in which legislators, staff, and stakeholders have been engaged have been fruitful and demonstrated a collective commitment to achieving meaningful change. Indeed, we remain extraordinarily hopeful that one of the first bills that Governor Tom Wolf will be able to sign in 2020 will be legislation that appropriately reduces the burden of probation while simultaneously protecting public safety.

Greg Rowe is the Policy Director and Legislative Liaison for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.  He can be reached at GRowe@pdaa.org