“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” seems like a straightforward equation made for simpler times. Indeed, the phrase was made popular by the 1970s cop show “Baretta” and even once cited in the Congressional Record. Yet from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, the average sentence in the United States roughly tripled. Unfortunately, these increases did not make the United States any safer. It is now a relatively uncontested principle among criminal justice experts that harsher sentences do not deter crime.
These findings also hold true for community supervision, where studies show that most violations typically occur during the first two or three years of probation, after which the effectiveness is lost and all that is left is an oppressive, capricious and profligate system. It is therefore surprising that some judges in Pennsylvania believe that capping the numbers of years an individual can be sentenced to supervision would be “devastating and only increase the amount of incarceration.”
This is what the Honorable Michael Barasse, president judge of Lackawanna County, testified during a state Senate hearing to consider probation and parole reform. In essence, Judge Barasse was warning lawmakers that if they capped supervision sentences, Pennsylvania judges would simply increase the custody sentence for those they “feel would violate” their probation.
This mindset is in direct conflict with judges’ primary duty of "preserving the principles of justice,” meaning judges should base sentences on the law, fairness and the public good, rather than frustration that they can’t sentence individuals to years or, in Pennsylvania’s case, decades of repressive supervision. Moreover, as discussed, longer sentences do not promote safer communities.
What is even more astonishing about the judge’s testimony is how out of step he and Pennsylvania are with the rest of the country when it comes to supervision. The commonwealth has one of the largest prison populations in the Northeast and ranks third in the nation for individuals on some type of community supervision. What’s more, while the rest of the country has been experiencing reductions in their supervision populations, Pennsylvania’s has actually grown – by 5.3 percent in 2015. Today, approximately 300,000 people are under community supervision in Pennsylvania – about the same number of people that reside in Pennsylvania’s second largest city, Pittsburgh.
The reason for these increases is sadly baked into the supervision régime itself. While most states in the union cap the number of years a defendant can be sentenced to supervision, Pennsylvania is among only four states that allow felony probation for the maximum of the underlying sentence. In other words, a person sentenced to 20 years in prison could also receive a 20-year probation sentence – which, for some, translates into a life sentence of government control.
These shocking numbers cannot be read in isolation; the supervision system in Pennsylvania perpetuates its own problems. The longer a supervision sentence, the more likely an individual will violate some condition and be “recycled” through the system. This is precisely why experts warn that after two to three years, the returns on supervision not only diminish, they rot. Undeniably, the very nature of supervision causes stress on individuals that can cultivate recidivism and a return to prison. For an individual who has completed 20 years in prison and is serving 20 years on probation, if they violate any conditions of release – which can be as simple as driving on a suspended license – they can be sentenced to the maximum term of 20 more years in prison. It is no wonder that almost one-third of incarcerated Pennsylvanians are supervision violators – which is nearly 20 percent over the national rate.
Rather than scaring lawmakers with stories of the boogeyman, judges in Pennsylvania should be leading the charge on capping supervision sentences and rethinking how and why we use community supervision. This is not an issue about doing the time for the crime; these individuals have served time. Instead, it’s about making sure community supervision promotes public safety, not state control.