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Reworking Probation as Part of Criminal Justice Reform

A housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa.

A housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. AP Photo

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Connecting state and local government leaders

As states reduce prison sentences and try to limit the number of people incarcerated, governors say they also must drill down into the next steps needed to help people remake their lives.

Pennsylvania’s probation policies that can lead to people being under supervision for a decade or more captured national attention last year when rapper Meek Mill was sent back to prison for up to four years for minor violations of his release.

Mill eventually was released a few months into his incarceration.

But Gov. Tom Wolf said there is more work to be done, noting that in his state probation or parole can be unlimited, leading to situations like with Mill, where he was still on probation 10 years after a 2008 conviction on gun and drug charges. The infractions that prompted a judge to put Mill back in jail were for getting into a fight and popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in New York City.

“The time you are in probation is important and it does contribute to the restorative function of the criminal justice system,” Wolf, a Democrat, said during a panel discussion Saturday at the National Governors Association winter meeting in the nation’s capital. But the utility of that supervision eventually runs out, which is why many states have caps, he added.

Legislation introduced in January in Pennsylvania by a bipartisan coalition would limit probation or parole sentences to three years for misdemeanors and five years for felony convictions.

CNN host Van Jones, who is also the CEO of REFORM Alliance and moderated the panel, said many people don’t understand how being on probation can keep people trapped in the criminal justice system, even though they have turned their lives around. “You can go back to prison for being 15 minutes late to a meeting with your parole officer,” Jones said.

States from Louisiana to California have passed legislation in recent years aimed at reducing prison populations, often through reducing sentences and ending mandatory minimums. These moves have gained bipartisan support and has been pushed by diverse coalitions, from the conservative Koch brothers to liberal reform groups. Those coalitions also helped push the federal First Step Act last year through Congress and with President Trump, which reduced prison sentences in the federal system.

Along with education initiatives and programs that prepare people for work when they leave prison, Wolf and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said there are obvious steps states can take to help ease people back into society. Wolf said getting people their driver’s licenses or other identification as they leave is important, while states can also make sure that people get back on Medicaid insurance coverage quickly—a key if they need substance abuse or other treatment.

Bryant, a Republican who pushed sentencing reform in his state, said the Mississippi legislature is currently considering a measure to help people coming out of prison get driver’s licenses and also insure they are eligible to get professional licenses, like those needed to become a contractor, instead of automatically banning people with criminal records.

“We are going to pass a law that says you can’t do that, that we will have equal opportunity,” he said.

Bryant said he was drawn to criminal justice reform because of his past experience in law enforcement and seeing the impact of incarceration on families. In Mississippi, the fiscal benefits are also obvious, with a prison population shrunk by 11 percent since 2014. The next move needs to be investing the savings in re-entry programs, he said.

And the governor had these words of advice for his fellow state leaders, emphasizing that at some point somebody let out of prison on a reduced sentence will end up committing a violent crime. The media will end up pointing out that the person had been let out early, Bryant said.

“You have to own it, you have to own it,” he said. “You have to say ... I’m sorry and it breaks my heart that that happened. But you have to say, 'Here are the thousands of fathers who are working and taking care of their children and mamas back in their homes and with their families.'”

Laura Maggi is Managing Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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