Hassan Freeman was just shy of completing his last 30 days of a nine-year probation when his probation officer told him he’d have to wear an ankle monitor — this, at a time when Freeman, who’d served a 14-year prison sentence starting at age 17, had by all measures turned his life around: He’d successfully graduated from La Salle University with a bachelor’s degree in social work, was working as the dean of a Philly middle school, and was an active member of several anti-violence and reentry community groups.
“Fortunately, the administration at my school was understanding about the circumstances,” he says. (The ankle monitor requirement should have been imposed on his first 30 days post-incarceration, not his last, Freeman says.) But that seemingly arbitrary issue could have had a devastating effect on Freeman’s employment and well-being, which he’d worked against countless obstacles to attain.
Navigating a fraught and unpredictable tight rope is inherent to probation and parole, and it’s something Philadelphians – at alarming rates – are no stranger to: According to the First Judicial Annual Report, as of December 2021 there were 23,763 Philadelphians on probation or parole.
“When you’re a returning citizen, just trying to reintegrate into society is a full-time job. What we’re trying to do is address some of the ‘walls after the wall,’” Hassan Freeman says.
Pennsylvania is a particularly hostile state when it comes to probation and parole: PA probation officers supervise an average of 105 cases per officer, when best practices recommend limiting that load to no more than 50. And a recent study by the PA Commission on Sentencing found that nearly 88 percent of studied probation revocations involved a mere technical violation – with many individuals sentenced to the county jail, prison, or an extended term of probation for technical infractions such as missing a meeting with a probation officer (which can be challenging for folks working typical business hours) or being out after curfew (which can be an issue for parents who might need to tend to children’s needs past a designated time).
Reforming probation and parole is at the heart of REFORM Alliance, the initiative launched by Philly rapper Meek Mill and several other luminaries committed to transforming probation and parole throughout the United States by changing laws, systems and culture.
This Saturday, as part of Second Chance Month, REFORM Alliance and more than a dozen community-based organizations will host a Community Day of Action at South Philly’s XYE Community Center. Organizations on hand will provide job training, record clearing, mental health counseling, housing assistance support and more. The event is open to the public and will also feature food and music.
Freeman says the event will also give returning citizens the opportunity to spend quality time with their families, just enjoying life. “When you’re a returning citizen, just trying to reintegrate into society is a full-time job. What we’re trying to do is address some of the ‘walls after the wall,’” says Freeman, who joined REFORM’s advisory board in 2022, after hearing about its legislative work from friends who were returning citizens.
Pushing bipartisan reform nationwide
REFORM was founded in 2019 in the wake of the #FreeMeek movement; its board, co-chaired by Mill and Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, also includes fellow co-founders like Arnold Ventures co-founder Laura Arnold; entrepreneur and business mogul Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter; Kraft Group CEO and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael E. Novogratz; Vista Equity Partners founder, chairman, CEO Robert F. Smith; Brooklyn Nets co-owner and philanthropic investor Clara Wu Tsai. In October 2021, philanthropist, pediatrician, and criminal justice reform advocate Dr. Priscilla Chan joined the organization’s Board as well.
Veteran criminal justice advocate Robert Rooks — who spoke at The Citizen’s 2021 Ideas We Should Steal Festival — leads the organization as CEO.
Since its founding, REFORM has helped pass 16 bipartisan bills across 10 states, creating pathways for more than 650,000 people to exit the system over the next five years. In Pennsylvania last summer, two REFORM-sponsored probation bills related to remote reporting (that is, allowing meetings to take place virtually, rather than in-person) and common sense scheduling of probation check-ins unanimously passed the legislation and were signed by Governor Wolf.
Another bill, Senate Bill 913, proposed offering incentives to returning citizens to partake in education, vocational, and other programs, and also put forth the idea of early release from probation for people who comply with rules imposed on them. It passed the PA Senate and stalled in the House, but REFORM is heartened by Governor Shapiro’s commitment to probation reform.
Rooks, a member of Shapiro’s transition team, said in a statement that, “In his first address as Governor, Josh Shapiro has shown a commitment to public safety. Improving Pennsylvania’s broken probation system is a key public safety solution that would benefit people on probation, probation officers, and our communities. Probation reform in Pennsylvania will translate into stronger families, stable communities, and greater public safety for all.”
One promising model in Pennsylvania has been York County, where District Attorney David W. Sunday, Jr., and the York County Probation Department have run a highly successful early termination program for people on probation. The folks granted early termination under the program have a recidivism rate of less than 8 percent. (Statewide, according to a report by the PA Department of Corrections, the recidivism rate is about 65 percent.)
Tralisha Corbitt, deputy director of membership for REFORM Alliance, says that we can all do our part when it comes to transforming our probation and parole systems – reaching out to our leaders; being open-minded to folks who are returning citizens; offering jobs; and coming by Saturday’s event to learn more and provide information for others who may need it.
Freeman emphasizes that we can use our voices to make a difference on a policy level – by voting.
“All politics is local,” he says. “We need judges who are not bound by votes but are bound by doing the right thing. We need judges who are willing to level the playing field. We need elected officials who understand that a lot of what we’re dealing with is systemic. We need leaders who will stand up in City Council, in Harrisburg, and in Congress to put legislation out there that will have a profound impact on leveling the playing field that has systematically been unlevel, particularly for Black and Brown people. We’re not against monitoring a person’s journey once they reenter society — but we know the system can be abused and needs reform.”
Saturday, April 8, 10am – 7pm XYE Community Center, 1614 South 26th Street. Free. To RSVP, text “PHILLY” to 81411.
The Citizen is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of the reporting at brokeinphilly.org.
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