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Delaware Senate Democrats

Probation Reform Benefits the First State

January 20, 2023

By Senator Marie Pinkney and Representative Melissa Minor-Brown; originally published by Delaware State News on January 20, 2023.

What does it mean to “pay your debt to society?”

Most people would answer this with a version of the familiar adage, “When you do the crime, you do the time.” In theory, prison sentences are punishments commensurate with the severity of the crimes committed. For most formerly incarcerated people, this means that once they serve their time, they should be allowed to rejoin society. Yet for the more than ten thousand Delawareans on probation — a number three times the state prison population, making up 64% of individuals in our state’s justice system — paying that debt continues long, long after release.

For those on probation, keeping out of prison can be like a full-time job—one with no pay and no benefits.

Imagine being recently released from prison, moving into the bedroom of a cramped apartment you share with other people on probation, and having no spouse or family to support your reintegration into society. Imagine dealing with obstacles like having a revoked license, a criminal record impeding your efforts to find employment and housing, being limited in how far you can travel and when you can be out, checking in with your probation officer for random drug screenings whenever they demand, the specter of addiction or mental health problems — all while keeping yourself healthy enough to juggle these competing demands.

Now imagine doing it for several years.

People on probation face these hurdles and more, something that no doubt contributes to the 1 out of 3 people on probation who will be returned to prison, most of the time for failing to follow rules rather than having committed a new crime—rules like failing a drug screening, missing a curfew, or failing to report to their probation officer on time.

The strings attached to probation are unduly burdensome to people, often with limited means, trying to reintegrate into society or avoid going to prison. Our current system employs a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution rather than tailoring the conditions of probation to the individual and their crime. And these obligations seriously hinder the ability of most people on probation to pursue basic stability. This system is a rigged game, where unlucky people on probation go back to prison and the ‘winners’ get to cling to survival by the tips of their fingernails. It’s a system designed for failure.

That’s why we need to modernize Delaware’s probation system — and a bill that we’re proposing for consideration in 2023 will do just that. As proposed, this probation reform bill would:

● End incarceration for technical violations;

● Enable the customization of probation conditions to individual needs;

● Require the collection and publication of data on probation and people on probation;

● Invest in community-based reentry programs;

● Limit probation terms for most crimes to 1 year; and

● Eliminate probation for minor convictions.

What we have right now simply does not promote or increase public safety.

It’s also senselessly expensive. A 2020 report; clearly described how reducing probation violations by 60% and the average length of probationary supervision from 4 months to 2 months would reduce the prison population by 1,092 people (close to 12%) and save the state approximately $37 million by 2025. The time is now to cut Corrections’ cost; while reducing crime and recidivism, enable better restoration for victims, aid in effective rehabilitation, and free up millions of dollars from the state budget that is currently squandered on micro-managing and impeding the rehabilitation of Delawareans unlikely to repeat their past mistakes.

Any way you slice it, probation reform benefits the First State: it saves taxpayers money and encourages the state to better provide services to people on probation who need it the most. That’s why I call on my fellow Delawareans and members of the General Assembly to support our probation reform bill during this legislative session.