Columbia University’s Justice Lab recently released a publication titled “The Pennsylvania Community Corrections Story.”
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (Parole Board) appreciates the work of universities such as Columbia in analyzing and evaluating Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system and providing recommendations on ways to improve. To advance our primary goal of the safety of our communities, we continually strive to help the people we parole and supervise to reenter their communities successfully. The Columbia report, and others like it, supplement the ongoing, detailed internal data analysis that guides our decision-making. Whenever we receive new information, we spend considerable time assessing it and looking for ways to implement useful recommendations.
We agree with several of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, such as using a violation sanctioning grid that guides the Parole Board’s graduated sanctioning process and capping revocations for first-time parole violators at six months under Act 122 of 2012. Additionally, the Parole Board and the Department of Corrections are currently reviewing minimizing supervision for low-risk offenders by using a new risk assessment tool that takes into account more information than the tests currently used by the commonwealth.
The Parole Board does, however, take issue with some of the findings that were presented in the Columbia publication. The researchers mistakenly comingled county and state data and came to a number of misleading conclusions.
In direct opposition to the findings reported by Columbia:
— Pennsylvania has fewer people on state parole than the national average — approximately 382 per 100,000
— Pennsylvania has one of the highest published parole rates in the nation. For the last three decades, the parole rate has remained at 58 percent, compared with Texas with an average of 34 percent.
— Pennsylvania continues to focus on reducing the number of people being returned to state prison for parole violations. At the end of fiscal year 2016-17, the total number of supervised parolees returned to prison for parole violations decreased from the previous year to 6,813 out of 42,039 individuals on state parole supervision.
— The current administration has worked to improve the parole agent to parolee ratio. In August 2016, the ratio was one parole agent per 80 parolees (1:80). The governor supported the hiring of 216 new agents in the last two years to help reach the ratio goal of 1:50.
— All state parole agents are trained in supervision practices designed to increase positive behavioral change by focusing on the individual parolee contact and connecting the individual with appropriate resources to address their various needs
— Pennsylvania uses actuarial assessments to inform state parole decision-making and periodically re-evaluates these tools in order to ensure that we are using the most reliable ones available.
— Criminal justice experts agree a job is a crucial element of a parolee’s success. A job allows for the individual to pay taxes, support a family and pay all supervision fees and any court-ordered costs they are responsible for. Over the last three fiscal years, the Parole Board has seen a steady increase in the employment rate of the parolees it supervised. In 2014-15, the employment rate was 53.9 percent, and reached 59.6 percent in 2016-17.
— For the last five years, the Parole Board has seen an increase in the number of individuals successfully completing their parole supervision. Completion success was at 6,382 in 2012-13 but reached 6,991 in 2016-17 due in large part to the improved supervision methods employed by the Parole Board.
Pennsylvania is using innovative, mobile technology and methods to keep parole agents in the field, working with parolees. Evidence-based practices have totally shifted how parolees are supervised. Positive interactions are crucial to successful community reentry. We are always looking for new ways to achieve two things: increased individual parolee success and continued public safety.
Leo L. Dunn is chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.