Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The population of people under supervision has dropped during Krasner’s first term, but his opponent in the May primary wants to roll back his changes.

When rapper Meek Mill was reincarcerated for a minor probation violation in 2017—after spending more than a third of his life under court supervision—no one familiar with the Philadelphia probation system was surprised. To the lawyers, advocates, and people under supervision who wrestle with this system, this case was an outlier only because it made national headlines. Mass supervision is a seldom discussed product of the tough-on-crime era in the United States, but today it is a leading driver of incarceration.

Philadelphia is at the center of this machine. This city’s rate of people under court supervision (including probation and parole) is by far the largest of any large city in the United States, according to a 2019 analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper’s yearlong investigation concluded that this dubious standing was due to a confluence of regressive laws, judicial culture, and lack of oversight.

That dynamic has begun to change, though. Reining in the size of the probation and parole population was among the goals of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner when he came into office in 2017, and during his first term the population has decreased by more than a third.

“Supervision for probation and parole, in general, is not just ineffective, it causes failure,” Krasner told The Appeal: Political Report. “It causes crime, it causes people to lose their jobs and not be able to support their families and not rehabilitate, and go back to jail.”

An upcoming election could roll back the gains he has made. In a May 18 Democratic primary, largely seen as a referendum on criminal justice reform, Krasner will face off against Carlos Vega, a career prosecutor who was one of the 31 attorneys that Krasner fired early in his tenure in an effort to change the office’s culture. A Republican candidate, defense attorney Charles “Chuck” Peruto Jr., is aiming to challenge Krasner in the November general election if Vega loses the primary.

Vega, who is backed by police unions and running with tough-on-crime rhetoric, is opposed to one of Krasner’s key reforms: capping probation lengths.

Even with probation caps and other changes in place, the number of people in Philadelphia on probation is still significant: Based on BJS figures, Philadelphia’s rate of community supervision is nearly one third higher than the national average.

Krasner came into a situation where probation reform was already underway—the public defender had been working on it for years, and was beginning to make some traction thanks to a multimillion-dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation. But Krasner’s approach to probation represented an about face from his predecessor’s.

“Philadelphia might be ground zero for mass supervision in America,” said Vincent Schiraldi co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. But, he added, “Larry is helping it dig out from under that.”

Meek Mill’s story has almost become a folk legend for criminal justice reformers. The rapper, whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, initially served five months in jail for gun and drug charges when he was 19. He was incarcerated over a decade later for violations of the probation conditions that were added to the sentence. The violations that kept him churning through a Philadelphia courtroom included not asking for permission to leave the state to go on tour and failing a drug test. 

The national uproar that followed Meek Mill’s 2017 incarceration paved the way for his release and his charges being dropped—and it shifted focus toward millions of people, disproportionately Black, who are in his shoes as probationers. At the end of 2018, the most recent year that data is available, 3.5 million people in the United States were on probation, or one in 72 adults, representing more people than in jail and prison combined. 

Technical probation violations are common because supervision typically comes with monthly fees, mandatory meetings, drug tests, and other requirements like completing certain programs. These conditions can make compliance difficult, particularly for low-income people, and lead to mistakes that land people in jail or prison.

Probation began as a humane alternative to incarceration. “It took a sharp turn to the more control, surveillance, punitive model in the ’70s,” said Schiraldi. “They started to borrow some of the more punitive elements” of the legal system. 

Studies have shown that short periods of supervision can have benefits. However, if someone is going to reoffend, they are most likely to do so early on, and the positive effects for lower-risk supervisees diminish in the second and third year—the requirements of probation hinder a person’s ability to lead a productive life, and they become more likely to be reincarcerated for minor violations. More than one in 10 state prison admissions are the result of a technical violation of probation such as missing appointments with their probation officer or testing positive for marijuana.

A recent analysis of data from Oregon and South Carolina by Pew Charitable Trusts found that 90 percent of people who make it through the first year of probation supervision without rearrest could have had their sentences shortened without diminishing a community’s safety, as measured by rearrests. 

As legal scholar Cecelia M. Klingele has written, “community supervision is not an alternative to imprisonment, but only a delayed form of it.”

This type of research informed Krasner’s mindset regarding probation when he came into office. His approach to decreasing the load involves first working with the public defender’s office and the courts to streamline early termination of supervision for people who they determine no longer need it. 

Byron Cotter, director of alternative sentencing at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, says this is not a new concept. 

“For years we’ve been filing termination petitions, termination of probation early when a client is doing well,” he said. But, he added, Krasner has been a much better partner than past administrations. Cotter said that this year his office filed over 800 petitions, as of Feb. 9 when he talked with the Political Report. Of those, 95 percent have been granted early termination. 

“He has assigned a specific DA to respond to those petitions, so the responses are quicker,” he says. Previously the petitions would ping-pong between the court and the DA’s office making for a slow and unproductive system. 

Cotter believes the new system has enough support that it could be a permanent feature of the office, even if Krasner doesn’t win a second term. 

“I’m hopeful that even if there is a change, that the person that comes into that new position will understand this now,” he said. 

Vega agrees with Krasner that if a person is doing well under supervision, that person should be rewarded with a shorter sentence. “I’ll start from the beginning. You get clean and sober, I’m reducing your probation. When you get your GED or associate’s, I’m reducing your probation,” he told the Political Report. “And finally when you get that paycheck job where you say, ‘Look, I’m paying taxes to pave our roads and put into our schools,’ I terminate that probation.”

He advocates for a more individualized program for each supervisee, tailoring their requirements to what they need to get back on their feet—an approach that New York City has largely been able to implement because the caseload is so much smaller, so there are more resources for each person. 

Where the two candidates differ is on the front end. “A short probation isn’t helping you,” said Vega. “You need a roadmap to success.” This stance is in line with the policies of Krasner’s predecessors and counters Krasner’s guidelines that call for shorter supervision sentences. 

Krasner directed his line attorneys to stop adding probation after incarceration, referred to as a probation “tail.” The attorneys have discretion to make decisions outside his guidelines with the approval of a supervisor if an individual case merits it. 

When it comes to probation as an alternative to incarceration, the guidelines put a cap at three years of supervision for felony charges. And for misdemeanor cases the ceiling is one year of supervision unless state law requires more. For a technical violation of supervision conditions, Krasner’s prosecutors are directed to not ask for more than 60 days of incarceration. Also, his office has simply charged fewer low-level nonviolent crimes than the prior administration. Between 2018 and the present, the average number of drug convictions decreased by more than 50 percent compared to the 2015 to 2017 average, while the average number of dismissals increased by more than half.

Krasner’s office has tracked future years of court supervision—that is, years imposed assuming a person does not get a violation. The drop in the number of years of supervision sentenced from 2015 to 2017 compared to 2018 to date dropped by more than half. The effect of shorter sentences will most likely be more significant  in coming years, as shorter terms of supervision are completed. 

“I’ve seen this pattern over and over again in criminal justice reform,” Krasner said, “it’s much easier to change things and do them well in the future than it is to go back in time and fix things.”