I’ve seen people in my community struggle against a criminal justice system that often ignores their efforts to rehabilitate themselves. They have found jobs. They support their families. They have become examples to their communities. Yet, they endure probation sentences that last for years. They live under the constant threat of being sent to jail for the smallest infraction.
They are not free.
Pennsylvania needs a new approach to probation. While many legislators in Harrisburg have joined the effort to reform our criminal justice system, we have not yet dealt with the most troubling aspects of probation policy in Pennsylvania. The time for action is now.
Pennsylvania has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast, but we also have the fourth-highest number of people under government supervision throughout the United States. Approximately one-third of all beds in state prisons are occupied by people who have violated the conditions of their probation. These are often individuals who pose no real danger to society.
We can fix this. Soon, I will introduce legislation that will update Pennsylvania’s probation policies, reduce recidivism, and inject common-sense reforms that will focus county resources and save taxpayer dollars.
For instance, if the most ex-offenders commit new crimes during their first year of probation, why do courts impose probation sentences that can last for years? The risk of re-offense decreases substantially after the first year, which means resources are being wasted to monitor individuals who do not pose a threat to themselves or others. Capping probation sentences makes sense for the ex-offender and for the county.
Second, we must limit a judge’s ability to jail probationers for technical violations that do not threaten public safety. No one should face jail time for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike. Instead, let’s implement a graduated response system to technical violations where judges have more than one tool at their disposal to deal with minor infractions.
Next, we can incentivize good behavior and allow judges to reduce probation time. This approach will reward those who are committed to the rehabilitation process, shorten lengthy sentences, and reduce the financial burden that is required to continuously monitor individuals who are successfully re-entering society.
Finally, we must limit the terms of probation to the original sentence. Offenders deserve to know that the terms of their probation will not be reset if they are jailed for violations that are not new crimes.
Most of us are aware of the high-profile cases surrounding this issue, but our probation system impacts the lives of average Pennsylvanians who are doing all they can to overcome past mistakes. If they are trying to make things right, our justice system should do all it can to make things right as well. People from across the Commonwealth agree that we must do more to ensure that ex-offenders do not commit another crime. We’ve lived under “tough on crime” policies for decades. They haven’t worked.
Far too many Pennsylvanians are trapped in a system where probation can last far too long. No one should be forced to live under the constant strain of supervision and fear of additional jail time.
Revising our outdated probation policies is an important step in reforming our criminal justice system. There are countless mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and friends and neighbors – and they are all crying out for a fair shot at a second chance. They must not be ignored.
State Sen. Anthony Williams represents Pennsylvania's 8th Senatorial District.