Delaware’s Broken Probation System:

The Urgent Need to Reform Community Supervision in the First State

The United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate higher than any other country in the world. Delaware’s incarceration rate, while dropping, is still higher than all of its neighboring states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. While state leaders have recently enacted law and policy to reduce the prison population, none of these reforms have tackled a major driver of the prison population in Delaware: the probation system. As of June 30, 2019, 10% of the Level V prison population and 47% of the Level IV facility population were imprisoned for a probation violation. Delaware has the 8th highest rate among states for probation, with 13,519 people on probation as of June 30, 2019.

Delaware’s probation system is driving incarceration in the First State. While probation is meant to punish people for breaking the law, it is intended to be less punitive than incarceration and is supposed to assist with rehabilitation. However, for many, a probation sentence is nothing more than a deferred, or extended, prison term. Thousands of people on probation end up incarcerated—not for committing a new crime, but for violating one or more conditions of their probation. Reasons could include a missed curfew, a missed meeting with a probation officer, or failing a drug screen. A recent study published by the Statistical Analysis Center (“SAC”) analyzing a cohort of 1,203 people released from prison from 2013-2015 shows that 94% of those arrested for a probation violation were arrested for violating a condition of probation—not for committing a new crime. Each month, hundreds of people appear before judges across the state for violation of probation hearings. In the month of October 2019 alone, at least 947 Delawareans were scheduled to appear before judges for violation of probation hearings.

For individuals returning home after incarceration, the hurdles to successful reentry are substantial. Returning citizens struggle to find housing, transportation, medical care, and employment at a liveable wage. On top of this, many face mental health and substance abuse challenges. The probation system and its myriad of reporting requirements, meetings, costs for treatment, curfews, and surveillance are insurmountable hurdles for too many.

By reimagining probation, Delaware can:
  • Reduce its incarcerated population
  • Reduce crime and recidivism
  • Enable better victim restoration through payment of restitution
  • Enhance public safety by focusing resources on those most likely to reoffend
  • Aid in effective rehabilitation
  • Free up millions of dollars for reinvestment, beneficially changing innumerable lives