This commentary was originally published in the Cape Gazette on Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

By Shannon Shapter, Smart Justice Ambassador

Delaware’s probation system is driving incarceration in the First State. Probation should not be focused on punishment; it should seek to rehabilitate and restore the person on it. 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 a simple technical violation like missing a meeting or a dirty urine screening. The probation system is not making Delaware safer, but it costs the state millions of dollars that could be spent on victim services, and community-based treatment and rehabilitation programs.

On Valentine’s Day 2019, I returned home from Baylor Women’s Prison after serving 25.5 months for a DUI charge. The next day, I began serving my probation sentence. My probation conditions required that I report to both my probation officer and my Treatment Access Center case manager weekly. I respected them both immensely. My deep level of respect for them and their positive regard helped motivate me to comply with the conditions. My probation officer was one of the few who spoke to me like I was human. He was straightforward and direct, and didn’t take any crap – but he cared.

Despite my good relationships with my probation officer and TASC case manager, I still struggled to meet my limiting and challenging probation and TASC conditions, which left little room for mistakes. The probation system and its endless reporting requirements, meetings, costs for treatment, curfews and surveillance are insurmountable hurdles causing many to fail, ultimately leading back to prison.

While I was on probation, all of the appointments and urine screenings had to occur in Georgetown, about a 20-minute drive from my house, and I was required to be in Georgetown almost every day Monday through Friday. On top of working to meet my probation conditions, I worked part time and enrolled in college classes – all without being allowed to drive due to a revoked license. I had to take the bus, ask my mom or sister to drive me, catch a ride with my sponsor, or reach out to anyone else who would take me when my immediate support network was unavailable. One of the major reasons people fail is lack of transportation, and I recognize that even having this network gave me an advantage that many people on probation do not have. Once, I was forced to drive myself to report to probation because I could not find another ride. I ended up getting pulled over and cited for driving on a revoked license – and this contact with law enforcement was a probation violation that could have sent me back to prison.

One thing that makes me angry about my time in the system is the amount of mistakes that the system makes that go unnoticed and unvindicated. But a single mistake made by me could mean months of prison time. For example: I worked hard to get off probation and TASC as quickly as possible. The earliest someone can graduate from TASC and probation is six months. And I did. Within six months, I paid $5,650.55 in court fines and fees, and enrolled in a 12-week DUI class at a total cost of over $1,000. But even after I did all this, TASC wouldn’t release me. When they failed to complete me on time, the TASC supervisor tried to blame it on my counselor – the same counselor who encouraged me to be my own advocate and rise above negative forces like my probation officer. As a result, she was removed as my counselor. 

Can we work toward a better system? Yes! A probation bill sponsored by Sen. Marie Pinkney was introduced in June 2022, and it intends to create a better probation system. If the proposed bill becomes law, we can cut our prison population, give returning citizens a real chance at success, reduce recidivism, make Delaware safer and save taxpayer dollars. The proposed probation bill would modernize Delaware’s probation system by doing the following: 1. Ending incarceration of people on probation for technical violations; 2. Enabling the customization of conditions of probation to meet individual needs; 3. Requiring the collection and publication of data on probation; 4. Investing in community-based reentry programs; and 5. Limiting probation terms to one year. 

Delaware needs legislators who are dedicated to ending mass incarceration and challenging racial disparities in our justice system. In this year’s state primary election Sept. 13 and general election Nov. 8, let’s elect candidates who are willing to support probation reform and champion other smart justice legislation. As a smart justice ambassador, I have been using the ACLU of Delaware’s Vote Delaware website to learn more about what smart justice issues to consider when I vote in September and November. People currently on probation in Delaware cannot vote, and I am glad that I earned back my right to vote so that I can have a say in who is making the laws. 

Since my release from probation, I have been working, and my recovery is going well. However, this story is not the same for many people. I am a smart justice ambassador who would like to see the probation reform bill reintroduced and passed when the new legislative session starts in January 2023. So I hope that everyone who reads this story will join me in electing candidates who are ready to implement significant reforms to Delaware’s probation systems.