Further parole supervision reforms in Pennsylvania will commence soon, as a second round of JRI recommendations (JRI2) has been developed, and these are currently awaiting legislative action. The JRI2 package includes one particularly noteworthy reform to state parole, the introduction of a system of swift, certain, and fair (SCF) sanctioning. The PA DOC, through a federal grant, is already conducting an experimental pilot of SCF parole supervision in the Pittsburgh parole district. JRI2 will expand this practice statewide.
Part of the thinking behind this reform is that many technical violations are essentially ignored or are handled with a written warning, a situation that is due in part to pressure over the past decade to divert TPVs from prison. A written warning is now the modal sanction for a technical violation in Pennsylvania, but it is unclear whether a written warning holds teeth for deterring bad behavior on supervision. Also, parolees typically accumulate several warnings for violations before receiving a significant penalty. This seemingly compromises the perceived likelihood of receiving a sanction and the speed with which sanctioning is delivered. It is well recognized that swiftness and certainty are key aspects of sanctioning for deterring future misbehavior. Also, given the disparities across the state in the handling of sanctions—disparities that may occur despite having a VSG in place—the perceived fairness of supervision may be compromised as well. The intention of the new JRI2 policy is to trade longer (or more severe) sanctions for shorter but swiftly, consistently, and fairly delivered sanctions to generate better outcomes. Along the sanctioning continuum, sanctions rise in severity from community diversion to confinement. Currently in Pennsylvania, the minimum amount of time a TPV must serve if facing confinement as a sanction is generally two months. The theory is that an effective confinement sanction could be as short as just a few days (“quick dips”) if done swiftly and consistently. Pennsylvania will be testing this approach under state parole supervision going forward.
Solution: Limit Punishment for Technical Violations
Those who violate terms of probation in Pennsylvania by failing drug tests, not reporting, traveling without permission, or any number of other infractions that don’t involve a new criminal conviction can still face steep punishment—up to the maximum prison sentence for their original crime. Limited jail stays, advocates say, could still deter bad behavior, without the cost of extended incarceration or the possibility of extreme punishments for minor violations. Some put a different and more punitive twist on the idea, arguing for “swift, certain, proportionate” punishments in which any technical violation results in a short jail stay, with the idea that predictable and moderate punishment is the key to behavior change.
About 14 states have imposed caps on incarceration for technical violations. Louisiana limited jail to 90 days for first-time technical violators—a reform that cut the average time spent in jail by more than nine months and saved taxpayers $17.6 million a year, with no effect on public safety, according to Pew.
A proposed state law would create a system of graduated sanctions and limiting jail for technical probation violations to 30 days, without making jail mandatory. Without action from Harrisburg, change could be possible on a local level. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner has said he’s seeking no more than 60 days in jail for technical violators, but it’s up to judges whether to enact that shift. Pennsylvania has already authorized courts to create their own “swift, certain, proportionate” programs; Chester County launched one in 2015 [N.b. BJA grantee], targeting drug users with a history of violating probation with automatic, short jail stints for violations. While the automatic jail stays are controversial, Chris Murphy, chief of probation there, said it has changed behavior and prevented lengthy jail stays: 95% of drug tests among the program’s 50 participants are negative. “They know if they’re going to use, they’ll go to jail,” he said, “and just knowing that gives them some outward motivation to stay clean.”