Part One – Under supervision: Freedom or Failure
DELAWARE – Mike Brickner has been heading the ACLU of Delaware for only about half a year, but already, he says one major thing that needs to change is the state’s probation system. It’s a system that, he says, targets black and brown communities and doesn’t work for the people it’s meant to rehabilitate. In a recent report released by the ACLU in the state, Brickner and his colleagues name all of the issues with the system and what can be done to change it.
“Fundamentally broken,” that’s simply how Brickner describes the probation system in Delaware. “Unfortunately I think here in Delaware, we have a probation system that really focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation.”
In a recent report released by the ACLU, Brickner and his colleagues say one of the biggest issues with the system is the amount of probationers being sent back to prison for what’s called a technical violation.
“If you look at our state prison population, there are a large number of people in our state prisons right now who are in prison not because they committed a new crime, but because they had some sort of minor technical violation while they were on probation,” Brickner said.
But Joanna Champney with the Department of Corrections says that simply is not true.
“There’s a misperception that there’s a high degree of probation violations and that that’s driving the prison population. Delaware’s prison population has been declining pretty dramatically for the last several years,” she said.
Brickner says sending someone back to prison for something as simple as missing meetings or failing a urine test is a system that sets probationers up to fail.
“Unfortunately with those types of very stringent protocols, you know when you’re on probation for a year, or two years, or longer, it often times just becomes a matter of time until you make some sort of little mistake, you’re not committing a new crime, but you get violated, and then you get sent back to state prison,” Brickner said.
When asked what could be done to make the system more fair, or at least easier to navigate, Bricker had one immediate suggestion.
“An immediate end to what’s known as operation safe streets, or the governor’s task force,” he suggested. “What it is, is a partnership between local law enforcement and probation officers, and what it has led to is essentially is surveillance and harassment of black and brown communities in the state.”
But Champney says that argument is missing one major component: the court room. She says it’s important to remember that a probation officer, even when reporting a violation from a probationer cannot send someone to jail.
“The courts actually are the ones who sentence, so I think that’s another important distinction to make, the department of corrections isn’t imposing any sentences,” Champney said.
Outside of the Governor’s Task Force, Brickner says there needs to be more training for compassionate, empathetic probation officers.
“People that said that their probation officer was really helpful, often times said that those people were interested in them personally, and in their success, that they weren’t looking at whether or not they checked off all of the technical boxes, but that they were looking at their progress overall, and had compassion for those individuals,” Brickner said.
Because in a system with probation officers who lack compassion, Brickner says the overall goal of rehabilitation is lost.
“If we are going to have a justice system that is seeking to rehabilitate people, we’ve got to have a probation system that prioritizes restoring those individuals and not just slapping their hands every time there’s some sort of minor mistake,” he said.
It is important to note that Brickner says the ACLU has worked with the department of corrections in the past and even worked with them when creating this report. He says they should all have the same goal in mind, which should be to rehabilitate probationers and make sure they successfully make it back into society.
Now this story can’t be told without speaking to people who actually went through the system in Delaware, and they have shared their stories. We’ll have that part of the story coming up on Wednesday night during the 47 ABC newshour.