By Larry Krasner
As your elected district attorney, I and dozens of other prosecutors and community supervision professionals have been calling for an end to destructive probation and parole practices.
Now I am pleased to share with you that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has unveiled a bold new policy aimed at safely reducing the number of people in our communities that are under supervision and, in doing so, take meaningful strides to improve public safety in our city.
The fact is, when probation and parole officers who already have ballooning caseloads have less people to supervise who pose no threat to public safety, that means they can focus on community members who truly need supervision. Moreover, this policy is driven by the need for individual justice because it’s wrong to keep a parolee trapped in a system that overwhelmingly hurts the poor and people of color, facilitates recidivism, breaks up families and keeps individuals from finding and keeping a job.
There are more than 42,000 people under some form of supervision in Philadelphia, while New York City, which is approximately five times larger, has just 12,700 and a crime rate significantly lower than ours. That means that if you were to go outside and take a walk around town, one in 22 adults you pass on the street are either on probation or parole.
These startling numbers come from a 2018 Columbia Justice Lab report, The PA Community Corrections Story, which is a sobering and comprehensive look at Pennsylvania’s mass supervision problem, a problem that has earned us the sad distinction of being second in the nation for the number of people on probation and parole.
“Pennsylvania is oddly and significantly out of step with the rest of the nation when it comes to the volume of people supervised … and the length of their supervision,” the study found. And Philadelphia is a ground zero of sorts for this level of supervision, which feeds the state’s mass incarceration problem.
In 2014, 28 percent of prison admissions in the United States were for what are known as technical violations (meaning violating the terms of one’s probation or parole, not committing a new crime). In Pennsylvania, people accused of technical violations constituted 45 percent of new admissions.
The statistics become more startling the closer you look: In Philadelphia alone, up to 50 percent of the county’s jail population is composed of people on probation or parole who haven’t been convicted of a new crime. And in 2017, people who violated their supervision terms comprised one third of the state’s prison population at a staggering cost of $420 million to taxpayers.
The injustice doesn’t end with those statistics, however. Despite decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in Philadelphia, people on probation and parole who test positive can be resentenced for weeks, months and even years. Additionally, lengthy supervision punishes the poor for being poor because people in poverty cannot carry the burden of costs and fees required as part of their term. This has nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation and everything to do with the system’s rapacious economic appetite.
When we take in to account all of Philadelphia’s pressing social issues, including homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, widespread poverty, the public health problems of opioid addiction and gun violence, and a public education system desperately in need of more funding, we must look at probation and parole reform for what it is: Part of our responsibility to pursue tikkun olam (what some believe is the act of repairing society for the benefit of all).
And as 37 states have reduced probation and parole populations while reducing recidivism, what are we as a city and state doing to restore justice to communities impacted by mass supervision?
To be clear: This policy is grounded in science, not fear stoked for decades by politicians seeking higher office, the news media and other parties who stand to benefit financially from continuing to hold up a broken supervision system as the only option.
For example, science has taught us that probation “tails” (or the length of one’s term of supervision) longer than three years often become barriers to rehabilitation and can actually cause recidivism. In other words, a practice originally designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate people back into society often does the exact opposite: cause crime instead.
“Justice, justice thou shalt pursue,” read Exodus 23:8 in part. Tzedek, or justice, is worth pursuing, however far we fall short in the end of achieving this goal. Ending mass supervision and its evil sibling, mass incarceration, must be included in this pursuit, because it’s a practice that is wasteful, makes us less safe and keeps people poor.
Larry Krasner is the district attorney of Philadelphia.