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Squeeze More Juice and Cut Them Loose

In the last post (1/22), I discussed how both an offender’s current criminal conviction (OGS or Offense Gravity Score) and prior criminal history (PRS or Prior Record Score) are used in PA sentencing to determine an appropriate sentencing level and time range for a given offender. A conviction for a felony offense results in an offender receiving more “points” than a conviction for a misdemeanor. Higher point values in both OGS and PRS result in sentencing guideline recommendations for more restrictive punishments. Yet, not only is the seriousness of both the current conviction and past convictions, if any, important; frequency of criminal activity is too.  People who are arrested regularly for committing less serious crimes (misdemeanors), can “rack up” points in PRS (if these arrests result in convictions), and can even end up being sentenced at a more restrictive level or for more time than a first-time offender with a felony 1 conviction.  However, given the reality that many arrests do not result in convictions and that plea deals occur in as many as ninety-percent of criminal cases, it is unlikely that people with a series of only misdemeanor convictions are serving time in state prison.

Over time there have been numerous legislative initiatives designed to provide meaningful rehabilitative options for “lower-level” offenders which either keep a person out of an incarceration setting or limit the time a person is confined.  Among these initiatives are: county intermediate punishment, restrictive intermediate punishment, state intermediate punishment, the PA boot camp and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative.  There are studies and reports on all of these showing how much they have been used, the costs and savings and longer-term public safety implications.

My reason for laying this out is to show that at least at the front-end of the criminal justice system in PA, there have been concerted, on-going efforts, to put in place well-designed initiatives to keep certain offenders in communities with supervision and treatment and/or to limit the time offenders spend in confinement, especially state prison. However, from examining the impact of these initiatives, it is clear that not all (eg Boot Camp and State Intermediate Punishment) have been used to their maximum potential. Thus, one consideration for further criminal justice reform in PA is to examine already existing legislated options to determine 1. if more can be squeezed out of them as is or with minor changes not requiring legislative fixes; 2. if there are legislative and/or regulatory changes that might be made (which will garner general agreement from both parties) to get additional appropriate offenders into these options 3. if there should be changes to the enabling legislation, such as an expansion in the types of offenders/offenses included, to optimize the impact of these.

Probation and especially parole violators have been and continue to be drivers of state prison populations.  There are several initiatives underway in these arenas including the use of swift and certain sanctions, which I see as very promising to both reduce criminal behavior and save taxpayer dollars.  But I think there is still significant room for improvements which are both effective in meeting criminal justice goals, and efficient.  Pennsylvania is an indeterminate sentencing state where all offenders receive a minimum and maximum sentence.  Offenders paroled before the expiration of their maximum sentences remain under parole supervision until their maximum sentence.  Thus, returning offenders can be under criminal justice supervision literally for years, even if they are doing well for an extended period of time and have no new arrests.  Just like the “Clean Slate” legislation that went into effect in PA earlier this year, allows for redemption from one’s criminal past if a person has a long period of sustained law-abiding behavior, those who have served their incarceration sentence and are living a law-abiding life in the community, should be cut loose from the justice system.  It is both ineffective and inefficient to “supervise” people for years after a return from state confinement.  We are wasting precious resources and forcing parole officers to divert their attention from high risk offenders just released to citizens who have demonstrated they have changed and are abiding by the law. And we may well be impeding these folks from being productive citizens as they remain under justice supervision which may be a red flag for employers.  A starting point for consideration is to allow parolees to earn their way off parole supervision after one year of demonstrated ability to abide by supervision conditions and no new arrests. The one-year time period seems reasonable as most failures on parole supervision occur soon after release certainly within one year.

In my view, much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  There is still plenty of room for further change, but it will be more challenging and divisive as further significant change will involve examining how we handle serious offenders who comprise the bulk of state prison populations.

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