At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many American prisons saw a sharp decrease in admissions to prison resulting from court closures, jail backlogs, decreased arrests and reductions in reported crime due to shelter-in-place orders. As a result of policy evolutions during this period, admission rates from parole violations dropped dramatically between March 2020 and February 2021 - a 44% decrease compared to the period March 2019 - February 2020.
While admission rates from parole violations have risen in 2021, they remain on average 23% lower than pre-pandemic levels. A number of factors have likely helped sustain lower admissions, including Pennsylvania’s own policies. COVID-era guidance helped parole agents realize that many violations could be managed in the community, without incurring the financial and social costs of reincarceration. Balancing this realization with a concern for the potential of increased violations, the Department of Corrections evolved its application of the new directives to reach a steady state of approximately 10 fewer parole violation admissions per month. Using the median stay for those detained due to parole violations of approximately 60 days, this would translate to over $200,000 in savings per year.
Violations can be broken out into three main types in Pennsylvania: law violations, absconsion violations, and technical violations. Law violations are new crimes committed on parole. Absconsion violations are when a person on parole is unable to be located. Technical violations are violations of the conditions of supervision, such as failing to contact a probation or parole agent as scheduled, failing a drug test, or failing to pay a fine. The chart below offers more detailed insights into the frequency and trends of each of these three kinds of violations in Pennsylvania over the last 2 years.
As seen above, technical violations make up the vast majority of violations recorded on parole, often representing more than three times as many violations as law or absconsion violations.
Drilling deeper into the different types of technical violations, the chart below shows the composition of technical violations, and how they changed after March 2020. Low technical violations make up a smaller percent of violations after March 2020, while high technical and electronic monitoring violations make up a higher percentage. Substance use violations consistently make up over 40% of all technical violations.
Notably, all types of parole violation are down since their pre-COVID levels. The chart below shows technical, law, and absconsion violations rates as a percent of their value from the first quarter of 2020. Throughout 2021, all violation types remained lower than this value, especially technical and absconsion violations.