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by John L. Micek, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 19, 2023

Out of the 50 states and Washington D.C., Pennsylvania ranks 13th nationwide for mass punishment, with 244,000 people behind bars or under some kind of supervision, new data show.

That’s a rate of 1,825 people for every 100,000 residents, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, which took a look at incarceration and supervision rates by state.

Nationwide, 5.5 million people are subject to some kind of confinement or supervision, which includes probation and parole, analyst Leah Wang wrote.

Of that number, 3.7 million adults are under community supervision — sometimes referred to as community corrections, which is nearly twice the combined number of people who serving time in jails or prisons across the country.

And of that subset, 2.9 million people are probation, and more than 800,000 people are on parole, the research showed.

The research argues that it’s impossible to separate incarceration from probation and parole, because outcomes for the latter usually determine whether or not someone offends again and returns to custody.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative).

And in Pennsylvania, “a state that is near the national average of 566 per 100,000 residents when it comes to incarceration, is among the most punitive in the country when you look at its full system of correctional control,” Wang wrote.

All this matters because Pennsylvania policymakers are set to take a fresh run this year at reforming the state’s probation system, after failing to reach a resolution during last year’s legislative session.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $44.4 billion proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $2 million for social workers who work with parolees and a $4 million appropriation for county-level adult probation services. Reform advocates say the money will free up resources that can be used for victims’ services and for fighting crime.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on March 7, 2023 (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

In his budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate in March, Shapiro, the former, two-term state attorney general, called specific attention to the state’s probation and parole system, exhorting lawmakers to fix it.

The “probation and parole systems were originally designed to help people get back on their feet and keep them out of prison,” Shapiro observed, adding “that’s not what’s happening in reality.”

The commonwealth has a 64% recidivism rate, the Democratic governor said, meaning that nearly two-thirds of “the people who walk out of our prisons will go back, many of them for nonviolent, technical parole violations.

“The first step in improving this system is investing in probation and parole services to reduce caseloads, improve training, and enhance services,” Shapiro continued.

Because “the more time a [probation officer] can spend with an individual, the more help they can provide as they look for a job, find an apartment, and settle into a successful life,” the Democratic governor told lawmakers, adding that while such investments will help, lawmakers also need to “put responsible limits on probation terms.”

Advocates generally believe those terms should last no longer than two years.

Anything longer than that and “you get diminished returns,” one frontline advocate told the Capital-Star, adding that if probation terms extend past five years “you create harm.”

They’re also cheered by the fact that Shapiro singled out probation reform in his everything-plus-several-kitchen-sinks speech to the General Assembly.

“We’re excited the governor put this in the budget,” another advocate told the Capital-Star.

(Source: Prison Policy Initiative)

If there’s a bright spot in the new data, it’s that, despite their size, community supervision populations across the country have been dropping for the last 15 years, “driven by changes in probation,” Wang wrote.

In 2021, there were fewer people on probation or parole than there had been since 1994.

And in the five years since the Prison Policy Initiative crunched the same data, probation populations had shrunk by 19% nationwide, the research showed.

But it’s also true that such trends varied by state.

During that same 5-year period, “the number of people on probation grew 35% in Arkansas and 13% in Kentucky; probation populations grew by smaller proportions in four other states,” Wang wrote, adding that “just two large states accounted for almost a quarter of the national drop, with Pennsylvania and California each cutting over 80,000 people from probation,” between 2016 and 2021.

“Changes in probation and parole populations are not inherently bad,” Wang observed. “Increases may signify that states are moving people out of prisons, and decreases may signify that states are lowering barriers to successfully completing a supervision term, such as by capping term lengths, reducing unnecessary conditions, and using non-carceral sanctions for violations.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.