Fix parole and probation to stop sending people back to prison on technicalities


April 09, 2020

Originally published in Daily News on April 09, 2020.

As America’s incarceration rate rose five-fold over the last four decades, concern with mass incarceration among policy makers, formerly incarcerated people, advocates and, yes, athletes, has also grown. But few paid attention to our mass supervision system, which keeps 4.5 million Americans under state surveillance and often leads them straight back to jail and prison.

This legislative session, in New York and Pennsylvania, that is about to change. Or so we hope.

Founded in the 1800s as an alternative to incarceration (probation) or an early release mechanism for good behavior (parole), community supervision has become a recidivism trap and a major contributor to America’s record incarceration rates.

Four out of 10 people in our prisons and jails were on probation or parole when they were locked up. They are often imprisoned not for new crimes, but for violations of the requirements of their supervision or technical violations, such as missing appointments, losing their job or using drugs.

This is no trivial matter. Around 40% of the people incarcerated in Philadelphia’s jails are locked up for probation and parole holds often waiting months for their day in court. And unlike in ordinary cases, they are not eligible to be bailed out.

At a time when New York’s governor and mayor advocate for closing the notorious jails on Rikers Island, the number of people incarcerated for technical violations there have increased by 30% over the last five years — the only population on Rikers that is increasing. African-American people are 12 times as likely to be incarcerated on Rikers for technical violations as are white people.

As bad as this is at the city level, it has an even worse effect on state prison populations. Of those returning to New York’s state prisons every year, nearly two-thirds return for technical violations rather than new crimes. The failure rate on parole in New York is nearly twice the national average.

Pennsylvania has the second-highest rate of community supervision in the country, 36% higher than the national average. There are nearly as many people under supervision in Pennsylvania as live in Pittsburgh. Nearly one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison beds are occupied by people who have violated conditions of probation or parole, costing Pennsylvanians $420 million a year.

Thankfully, policymakers in both states have taken the lead in promoting reforms that would reduce the footprint and punitiveness of community supervision.

In New York, Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblymanr Walter Mosley have authored the Less is More Act. It would incentivize good behavior on parole by granting 30 days of earned time for every 30 days without a violation; reduce incarceration for most non-criminal technical violations; cap the time people could receive if they are violated on parole; and increase due process protections so people don’t wait in jail months for a hearing.

Less is More enjoys the endorsement of the district attorneys of Albany, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Tompkins County; former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman; several former probation and parole administrators; and the New York State Association of Counties.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen. Tony Williams and Republican Sen. Camera Bartolotta co-authored Senate Bill 14 as a way of capping the enormous length of probation, reducing the likelihood that people will be revoked and incarcerated. In announcing the legislation, Bartolotta stated, “It is time Pennsylvania joins the 30 other states that have responsibly put a cap on probation sentences to ensure minor probation violations do not result in new sentences not matching the crime.”

As SB 14 works its way through the Pennsylvania legislature, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced reforms of his own to reduce the damage long probation terms can cause. With some exceptions, Krasner now requires his assistant district attorneys to seek felony probation terms averaging 18 months and misdemeanor terms averaging six months. Consider the change: Hip-hop star Meek Mill, whose celebrity has drawn long overdue attention to the system, was on probation for 11 years before he was incarcerated for a technical violation.

In announcing these reforms, Krasner astutely observed, “people instinctively believed too much supervision is not enough. But it turns out too much supervision is too much ... It does tremendous harm, and it costs a fortune.”

These bills to curb excessive supervision and revocations are a good start to what must ultimately become comprehensive reform of the supervision of 4.5 million — or one out of 55 — adults in America. We need to reduce this number and violations for what amount to ticky-tack fouls. Then we must capture the savings from not incarcerating so many people to do what probation and parole were meant to do in the first place — help people turn their lives around and thrive in their home communities.

Jenkins is a safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and co-founder of the Players Coalition. Long is a defensive end for the Eagles, the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year and a member of the Players Coalition. Devin McCourty is a safety for the New England Patriots and education chair of the Players Coalition. Jason McCourty is a cornerback for the Patriots and a member of the Players Coalition.