Probation reform will affect more than just probationers and officers, members of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee heard from other stakeholders this week during the second day of hearings on the issue.
The Legislature is considering a comprehensive bill that will overhaul the probation and parole system in an effort to save money and ease the burden on state prisons, where 17 percent of the population is there for a probation violation.
The bill includes measures to limit the length of probation terms, create an early termination system for good behavior and examine sanctions for technical violations such as nonpayment of fines or not reporting. Probation requirements are often too stringent, panelists testified.
“If we had to be on probation and the watch of probation, I’m not so sure we wouldn’t be violated,” said Robert Thomas, a Franklin County Commissioner and a member Probation and Parole Advisory Committee for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. “There’s so many restrictions and to be perfect is near impossible.”
The officers who monitor the approximate 250,000 people on probation and parole carry big caseloads and are underfunded, committee members were told.
Sixty-five of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have parole and probation offices, but state funding dried up, leaving the burden on local taxpayers, lawmakers were told. Franklin County asked the state for its usual funding of 80 percent, enough to cover the cost of officer’s salaries and on benefits, Thomas said. The county received 10.5 percent.
Another tenet of the bill, reducing lengthy probation sentences, would not jeopardize pubic safety, said George Little, Executive Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
“Longer probation supervision sentences are ineffective, since research suggests that those who remain clean under supervision for longer than three years have a significantly low recidivism risk,” Little said in his testimony.
Any savings realized through probation reform should go to the county probation offices, said Ted Johnson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. The pool of applications needs to be expanded to more than just veterans and those who succeed on standardized tests, he said.
“Probation and parole officers are unique,” Johnson told the committee. “They are a balance between social workers and law enforcement. Until you expand or give the state the power to expand that pool, you can make all the laws you want, but until it filters down to the folks who do the work, there will not be any changes.
Comprehensive probation reform should also not forget the victims of crime, a group of panelists told the committee.
“If probation is the red-headed stepchild, that makes victims the distant cousin always invited to the family reunion but rarely to the Sunday barbecue,” said Jennifer Storm, Commonwealth Victim Advocate.
Offenders should not be removed from supervision when they still owe restitution to the victims, Storm said, calling it a dangerous concept.
“I would ask that restitution is one of those things that is not bargained off,” she told the panel.
One problem is lack of data on the effectiveness of treatment programs for probationers with substance abuse issues, said Chris Demko, co-founder of a group consisting of parents who have lost a child in a DUI-related accident. The latest statistics the organization could find were 2014 numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which showed only 13 percent of people who entered DUI treatment programs completed it.
“If Pennsylvania does not address the current state of treatment, our belief and fear is that this legislation will accomplish little and only increase recidivism including 'non-violent' repeat DUI offenders who will kill and injure innocent victims similar to our children,” Demko said in his written testimony.
The panel agreed, with Sen. Scott Martin proposing a study on how to measure substance abuse rehabilitation.
“If we can find a way to measure that, then we won’t see these stats of 40,000 people mandated in 2014 and only 13 percent successfully completed,” Martin said.
Senate Bill 14 is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Camera Bartolotta and Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams.