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Philadelphia (April 19, 2021) — Philadelphia has a history of being the most over-supervised big city, with extremely high levels of people currently on probation and parole and unmanageably high caseloads for probation and parole officers, at times nearly twice the national standard. Pennsylvania is currently the third worst state in the United States for extreme over-supervision. While the first three years of supervision (especially the first two) generally support rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, longer periods of supervision in general are not merely ineffective — they actually cause failure, crime, and people to unnecessarily return to custody. And excessive probation and parole supervision has another terrible outcome: It overloads probation and parole officers with too many people to supervise, making it harder if not impossible for them to focus on the most serious offenders and the most serious needs.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) on Monday released a new study that found policy reforms implemented by the DAO in 2018 and 2019 have successfully cut the number of people on Philadelphia county probation and parole by one third, reduced the median length of terms of supervision on probation and parole by a quarter, narrowed racist disparity gaps, and reduced future years of supervision being generated by the Philadelphia courts by two thirds — a significant narrowing of the scope and reach of the criminal justice system that could yield tens of millions of dollars for prevention and public safety solutions if appropriately reinvested by state and local governments.
Joining District Attorney Larry Krasner to announce the report’s findings were the DAO DATA Lab, DAO Policy Team, Acting Chief Defender Alan Tauber, former NYC Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas (At-Large), Dominic Speach of PowerCorps, and Philadelphians who sought or received early termination of supervision with support from the DAO.
“When I took over this office in 2018, it was with a mandate to make the criminal justice system fairer, and to make it support public safety rather than harm our communities. Today, I am pleased to say that this office is moving the criminal justice system toward a brighter future for Philadelphians,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “We are pushing against mass supervision, the evil twin of mass incarceration, and by every measure we have made substantial progress toward meeting that goal. This is how we build public trust — which also makes us safer.”
In 2018, one in 23 adults in Philadelphia was currently on supervision — a rate 12 times higher than New York City’s and the highest rate of supervision among big U.S. cities. Mere technical violations act as trip wires that send people back to prisons. Examples of technical violations include failing drug tests — even for substances like cannabis, possession of which is no longer prosecuted in Philadelphia — and home address checks — a challenge for people experiencing housing instability often exacerbated by discrimination against people with criminal records.
“Instead of being a supportive alternative for people who have not committed serious or violent crimes, community supervision as implemented in Pennsylvania is feeding incarceration, keeping many of our prisons full despite overall crime being at historic lows,” said Tyler Tran, senior analyst at the District Attorney’s Transparency Analytics (DATA) Lab and lead author of the report, Ending Mass Supervision: Evaluating Reforms in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “In addition, the first one or two years of supervision are most beneficial to the public and to the defendant. Overly long sentences can be counterproductive, and are actually linked to more recidivism. Our review of the DAO reforms found there was no increase in crime caused by these policies, as measured by recidivism — suggesting we can and should do more to shrink the system.”
Unnecessary and overly punitive terms of supervision such as drug testing and housing requirements can often lead to people being re-arrested and incarcerated despite their not having committed a new crime. Oversupervision is a leading driver of prison population in Pennsylvania — ensuring more public spending on prisons annually despite steep and steady reductions in overall crime for the last four decades.
The interwoven crises of mass supervision and mass incarceration in Pennsylvania have attracted the attention of Human Rights Watch and were the subject of award-winning investigative reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“District Attorney Krasner recognized early on that probation and parole were expanding mass incarceration in Philadelphia, exacerbating racial inequities while failing to improve public safety,” stated Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former Commissioner of New York City Probation. “Thanks to his decisive action to reduce probation and parole terms, supervision terms and racial and ethnic disparities have all declined, without a rise in re-offenses — a win-win outcome that I applaud District Attorney Krasner and his team for achieving.”
“Fewer people on supervision and for shorter, more impactful, periods of time will result in more people exiting the system successfully, and not going back into jails and prisons on technical violations or new crimes. More urgently, the criminal legal system should not be seeking to find and arrest people who have committed no crimes unless it is in service to justice and public safety,” Councilmember At-Large Isaiah Thomas said. “We must reduce unnecessary interactions between law enforcement and Black and brown people, and vulnerable people including those with behavior health issues, as we struggle to ensure these interactions do not become violent or end tragically.”
Councilmember Thomas has authored a bill that would discourage vehicle stops for minor traffic infractions, situations that can escalate when occupants are found to have warrants, which are frequently issued over non-criminal matters including eviction.
Mike Luna, a Philadelphia college student, said unfair and onerous supervision requirements do not encourage people to succeed, much less thrive upon completing their sentences.
“Probation didn’t do anything but put a dent in my spirit. Probation didn’t set me up to be mentally, financially, or spiritually free — I found that through my own perseverance, including my recovery from substance use disorder, and through education,” said Luna, who graduated from Community College of Philadelphia with honors and is currently pursuing a degree in Child Psychology at Cheyney University. “Accountability goes both ways. The criminal justice system sets people up to fail more than it sets them up to succeed. There are so many people caught up in the system who deserve a real chance to find their footing, and to dream and to inspire.”
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.
Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, firstname.lastname@example.org