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How Pa. traps people in a vicious cycle of probation and prison

The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
October 31, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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A top state lawmaker proposes new rules for how candidates can spend their campaign cash in response to our investigation with The Caucus. Plus, The Investigator goes inside a superb Inquirer analysis of Pennsylvania's out-of-control probation and parole system. And don't miss this week's Riddler puzzle.


"In many cases, the expenses may be crossing the line into personal use, but because it’s difficult or impossible to see what the expenses are, there is no accountability."

— State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), who unveiled a bill to restrict campaign spending and boost transparency in response to last week's investigation by Spotlight PA and The Caucus

Inside the vicious cycle of probation and parole in Pa., and how it costs taxpayers millions

A Q&A with Samantha Melamed and Dylan Purcell, reporters for The Inquirer

Q: What was the primary takeaway from your investigation?
A: Despite declines in crime over the past 40 years, the growth in probation and parole in Pennsylvania has been enormous – around 400%, to 290,000 people. That makes us one of the most heavily supervised states in the country, in addition to being the most incarcerated state in the region. We arrived here through unusual laws that leave judges to mete out their own versions of justice, imposing probation terms that last decades and sending people to state prison for sometimes minor violations.

Q: What makes Pennsylvania unique from other states around the U.S.?
A: While many states limit probation to five years, there are almost no limits here. Probation can last up to the maximum for a given offense, and can be extended over and over if people violate it. And, while some states limit incarceration for violations that are not new crimes to just weeks or a few months, in Pennsylvania people can be jailed for years.
Q: What perpetuates the cycle of confinement you revealed?
A: Often, people are jailed for reasons connected to poverty and addiction. Some had missed probation appointments because they had to work, they couldn't afford childcare (in Philadelphia, children may not come to an appointment), or they couldn't afford bus or car fare to the probation office. Others were jailed for failing or missing drug tests, even though judges say they recognize that substance-use disorder is a disease. In some cases, the problem was simply miscommunication.
Q: What can be done to address this problem?
A: Prosecutors can seek shorter terms of supervision. Judges can choose to impose probation less often, to terminate it early or to overlook minor infractions rather than sending people to jail. But to achieve lasting reforms, it’s up to the General Assembly, where bills have already been introduced to bring Pennsylvania in line with dozens of other states that have undertaken reforms.
Q: Why should taxpayers care about this issue?
A: Pennsylvania’s state prisons spend an estimated $334 million each year incarcerating probation and parole violators. And, across the state, county jails are paying to house probation violators every single night. In Philadelphia, which spends $48,286 per inmate per year, probation and parole violations are the primary roadblock to efforts to reduce the jail population. Currently, about 40% of people locked up there have probation or parole detainers.

Read the entire investigation

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Vicki Vellios Briner / Special to PennLive

Thanks to everyone who joined us in the Capitol for our official launch party this week, with a special thanks to our Harrisburg-area supporters.

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Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.
TOUGH CALL (Case No. 8): Police called a local man and told him his wife had been found dead and they suspected murder. The man, shocked and horrified, rushed home and ran into the kitchen, where the police were waiting. They immediately placed him under arrest. Why were the police suspicious of him?
Stumped? Get a hint.

Last week's answer: The Post Office isn't open Sunday. Congrats to Jon N., our winner who will receive some Spotlight PA swag. Other subscribers who submitted correct answers were Brandon C., George S., Jeffrey F., Jim S., Deborah D., Christine R., Lou R., Karen W., Claudia M., Oscar A-L, Jennifer D. and Melanie B.
» This week's Riddler hint: Location, location, location.
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