In a recent blog, we detailed the many complex issues stemming from Pennsylvania's probation system. Now, let's dive into the ways lawmakers can work to overcome those issues. There's no shortage of research on community supervision and the costs of those systems. By looking to experts from the Columbia University Justice Lab, PEW Charitable Trusts, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, we can find practical recommendations for reform:
Instituting Probation Caps
Most states put a limit on the amount of time a person can be sentenced to probation. In Pennsylvania, no such cap exists. By instituting a probation cap in the Keystone State, officials would help ease burdens on probation officers, dedicate resources to monitoring more dangerous offenders, help offenders re-enter society, and reduce rates of recidivism.
Experts also recommend eliminating some of the more burdensome conditions of probation. These technical rules are not crimes in of themselves, but when violated, they result in incarceration. Curfew violations, leaving the jurisdiction, and even having a drink shouldn't be enough to land a person back behind bars.
Prohibiting Excessive Sentencing
Under current Pennsylvania policy, judges are permitted to “stack” probation sentences. Probation terms are often served back to back rather than concurrently. For some offenders, this means being under the watchful eye of probation officers for years on end. By prohibiting excessive sentencing, offenders gain the opportunity to truly rebuild their lives and put their past behind them.
Ending “split” sentencing would also help offenders start fresh. When a probation sentence is imposed after a period of incarceration, it can be challenging to really begin anew. Split sentencing doesn't factor in time served or good behavior, instead continuing to penalize offenders who have already paid their debts to society.
Even the simplest of rule violations can land parolees back behind bars. When people are unable to afford court fines, costs, or restitution, they are often ordered back into the system. This unfairly penalizes offenders who don't have the deep pockets that are often needed to settle these fees. The criminalization of poverty is deeply unjust and must be addressed by lawmakers.
Officials can look to other jurisdictions for a more appropriate approach. The Texas state legislature recently passed a law that allows courts to ask defendants earlier in the court process about their ability to pay fees/fines, while also tailoring the fees/fines according to their financial situation. When a financially reasonable payment amount is given, the odds that a person will be able to pay rise substantially.
Navigating the PA Probation System
The road to probation reform in Pennsylvania may be a winding one. A criminal defense attorney can help you navigate the existing system with your best interests in mind. Attorney Joseph D. Lento can serve as your advocate through your initial hearing, during your probation, and assist if any violations should arise. Contact Joseph Lento of Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or get in touch by clicking here.