The Reentry Project

The problem with probation in Philadelphia: ‘This thing is bigger than Meek Mill’

We’re much more likely to send offenders back to prison than the rest of the state.

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Kaylee Tornay / Billy Penn
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Updated, 1:45 p.m.

The news of Meek Mill, imprisoned since last week for violating his probation, is nearly impossible to miss in Philadelphia. A billboard on the Schuylkill illuminates his plight, and a bus has been circling City Hall the last couple days to bring further attention. Their messages focus entirely on the rapper, stating “Stand With Meek Mill” in bold lettering. But as a Pennsylvanian sent to prison during a probation stint, he’s not alone.

Take, for instance, an Army vet incarcerated at SCI Chester. The 54-year-old man, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons at the request of his attorney, was convicted in 2008 of two misdemeanors, simple assault and terroristic threats, and received probation. In 2012, the man, who suffers from schizophrenia, was convicted of drug possession in New Jersey and served three years in prison.

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The drug posession marked the end of his crimes but not his incarceration. After his release in 2015, he faced his probation judge in Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating his probation by Genece Brinkley, the same judge presiding over Meek Mill’s case.

About one-third of Pennsylvania’s 50,000 state prisoners are people like Meek Mill, whose real name is Robert Williams, and the Army vet: probationers or parolees sent back to prison. Many have committed serious crimes to land new sentences. Others are sent back for lesser, technical violations.

Philadelphia’s probation recidivism rate is arguably worse than anywhere else in the state. In 2014, the most recent year for which data was readily available, about 36 percent of the 23,000 people who were “discharged” from probation or parole were reincarcerated for violations. That number in Allegheny County was 1 percent. The statewide average was about 12 percent.

From judges too quick to send offenders back to prison, to lengthy probation sentences to overworked probation officers, advocates argue Pennsylvania’s probation system needs significant improvement.

“We’ve been working on larger reform areas,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “It’s unfortunate it has to be on the back of Meek Mill and not our clients. Anything that gets us major reform opportunities.”

Pennsylvania’s massive probation population

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Pennsylvania had about 183,000 men and women on probation as of Dec. 31, 2015. That ranks the Commonwealth sixth in aggregate and 12th per capita, at 1,814 per 100,000 residents. The total is well above the U.S. average of 1,522. Philadelphia, in 2014, the last year for which data was readily available, had about 16,000 people on probation, about the same amount on parole and another 10,000 on accelerated rehabilitative disposition or considered absconders. ARD is basically a lesser version of probation for minor offenders with little or no criminal record.

Probation, as well as parole, works in Pennsylvania in two ways. About 15 percent of offenders, mostly felons, are supervised by the state Board of Probation and Parole. Everyone else on probation or parole, the majority of whom have been convicted of misdemeanors, are under county supervision.

Pennsylvania is one of only five states with county management, joining New York, California, Texas and Georgia. There’s an advantage to the county system. The more local the management, the better it should be at understanding offenders and circumstances unique to the area. It should also be more sensitive to public pressure.

But county-managed probation creates an odd incentive structure, as explained in a recent study by the Justice Fellowship. When people like Meek Mill or the Army vet are sent back to state prison, the cost shifts from the county to the state. The offenders who once cost the county money are now the state’s problem.

And in Philadelphia, state prison often enters the mix.

Graterford prison opened in 1929;  it is expected to close when the Phoenix prison being built nearby is completed.

Graterford prison opened in 1929; it is expected to close when the Phoenix prison being built nearby is completed.

Kaylee Tornay / Billy Penn

Philly’s staggering probation to prison pipeline

Talk to public defenders and others representing the convicted and they’ll tell of a few judges too quick to sentence probationers back to prison and a Superior Court essentially acting as a rubber stamp.

The recent history of Brinkley lives up to that reputation. As the Inquirer reported, seven offenders sent back to prison by the veteran judge have appealed her decision in the last four years. The Superior Court agreed with her each time. But Brinkley is not the only judge to readily dispense prison time. Parole and probation violations are punished with incarceration at much higher levels in Philadelphia than the rest of the state.

When probationers have committed violations, either technical or criminal, a judge can revoke their probation. A revocation doesn’t always equal prison time. It could mean a lesser punishment such as more time on probation, fines or additional counseling, etc. Other counties, on average, revoke probation and parole at about the same level as Philly, which revoked probation or parole in 19 percent of all cases in 2014. The state average was 17 percent. In York County it was 40 percent. These 2014 numbers in Philly and for the statewide average were similar to 2013, 2012 and 2011.

The offenders in Philly, however, face consequences of greater severity. About half of Philly’s 43,000 parolees and probationers were “discharged” in 2014. A discharge can mean a successful completion of probation, a jurisdiction transfer to another county, the absconding of an offender or reincarceration. Of the 23,000 who were discharged from their probation or parole in Philadelphia, about 8,000, or 36 percent, were considered to be discharged because they were sent back to prison. The Pennsylvania average was 12 percent.

Another way to look at it: 8,000 of the 43,000 men and women who were on parole or probation at the start of 2014 in Philadelphia ended the year behind bars.

That wasn’t an unusual year for Philadelphia. From 2010 to 2013, the percentage of discharges ending in incarceration here were always above 17 percent and well above the Pennsylvania average. As you can see below, the number has been trending upward, too.

Those sent back to prison in 2014 weren’t always criminal offenders. About 5,000 probationers or parolees in Philadelphia were convicted of a crime in 2014. Three thousand had their probation or parole revoked because of a technical violation — perhaps a series of missed appointments or a failed drug test — and some of them landed a prison stint as a result.

Judges have great discretion over sentencing choices for probation and parole violations, but incarceration is generally meant for offenders deemed a danger to the community. In Commonwealth v. Sims, a major case from 2001, the Superior Court noted technical violations do “not mean they’re not a viable candidate to be continued on either parole or on probation. It depends on what the facts are. If his situation is one where he can’t go out in the community because he’s going to harm somebody and the facts before the Court indicate that, then that’s a viable reason to take him off probation or parole.”

But the numbers and anecdotes bear out instances where lesser offenses lead to prison.

“This [Meek Mill case] is bringing to the forefront something that happens all the time: incarcerating people for technical violations,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for ACLU Pennsylvania. “They hadn’t committed a new crime. They weren’t a danger to public safety….Instead of getting people the support they needed they were incarcerated.”

Lack of funding, lack of attention

Surely, if you live or work in Center City, you’ve seen the line outside 1401 Arch. It wraps around the corner of Broad and Arch Street every morning before 9 a.m., blocking the McDonald’s and backing up almost as far as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The scene is so common even the Google Street View image for the building’s address portrays a couple dozen waiting people.

They’re always outside in line for the same reason: people are waiting to check in with their probation officers.

“That picture itself speaks 1,000 words,” said Bradford-Grey.

The lines are bound to happen when only 271 officers to manage the 43,000 people on parole, probation or ARD. The average active caseload per officer in 2014 in Philadelphia was 134. The state average was 109. One officer in Philadelphia oversaw 681 cases.

Probation officers are like hybrid social workers and law enforcement officials. Some skew more toward the former, others toward the latter. Whichever their disposition, they’re overburdened and lack enough time to spend with offenders. In a 2016 survey of Pennsylvania probation officers, 59 percent or respondents said they spent less than half their time working directly with offenders because of administrative tasks.

Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research scientist at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a former probation commissioner in New York, said the heavy caseloads leave probation officers unable to work with offenders on behavioral changes and more likely to ding them with technical violations.

“They can’t meaningfully help them,” he said.

He added, “Pennsylvania is a surprisingly backward state.”

A 2015 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee of the PA Assembly found county probation and parole offices had acquired many new responsibilities in the last several years without any increases in funding. Counties, in fact, have been footing a greater and greater share of the bill for probation and parole costs.

Though counties have supervision of their probation and parole offices, state funds and grants have always represented a share of their cost. In 1998, the average Pennsylvania county paid for about 45 percent of its probation and parole services. The number is now 58 percent. Philadelphia most recently covered 60 percent of its cost, about $15 million.

Underfunded probation and parole offices mean more than overworked officers who can’t give enough attention to offenders. Taylor has seen probationers in need of better drug and alcohol treatment and not enough resources for those who are caretakers of children or elderly adults.

Meek Mill rally
Mark Dent/Billy Penn

A ‘direct driver’ of mass incarceration

That Budget and Finance Committee study was a rare look at Pennsylvania’s probation problems. And even activists tend to focus on other issues when speaking of criminal justice reforms. But, Taylor said, probation and parole are “a direct driver” of mass incarceration.

“I think there’s not a ton of attention paid to it,” she said.

A study this summer from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy examined the growth of probation across the United States and came to conclusion it should be seen less as an alternative for incarceration than a contributor to it. The authors, including Schiraldi, saw the increasing costs and lack of funding for probation as major problems. They recommended states focus on community-based programs emphasizing treatment and rehabilitation rather than supervision and monitoring. Even probation chiefs have voiced their support.

Such a program could have been beneficial for the Army veteran put on probation and then sentenced to prison by Brinkley. Instead, a middle-aged veteran with mental illness will spend as many as seven years behind bars for drug possession.

He’s in a similar situation to Meek Mill, whose probation violations were a failed drug test, an arrest at a St. Louis airport that wielded no charges and traffic violations from a motorbike incident set to be dismissed in 2018. His probation officer and an assistant district attorney recommended he not receive prison time.

Monday night, when hundreds of protesters rallied in Center City, the focus was undoubtedly on Meek Mill, rather than ordinary citizens. But many of the people in attendance shared how they knew someone, a family member, a friend, who’d experienced trouble in the probation system. They were thinking about them, too.

“This thing is bigger than Meek Mill,” said protester Shiheid Smith. “He’s just a platform that might open up doors for other African-Americans and all people.”