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ACLU and DOC at odds over probation system

Delaware Public Media

The ACLU of Delaware is calling on the state to “reinvent” its probation system. The Department of Correction says this is not necessary.

A report released by the ACLU of Delaware Monday argues the state’s probation system fails to rehabilitate many probationers and instead drives incarceration. 

Javonne Rich, a policy advocate with the ACLU of Delaware, says many people on probation end up incarcerated again not for committing a new crime, but for violating a condition of their probation. 

“So these reasons can include a missed curfew, a missed meeting with a probation officer, or failing a drug screen,” said Rich. 

The ACLU of Delaware is calling for the elimination of probation sentences for minor convictions, an end to incarceration for technical violations of probation, and customization of probation terms to meet each probationer’s needs. 

The organization estimates the state could save tens of millions of dollars over the next few years if it reduced technical violations and time served for them.  

But Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis says the ACLU report is “recklessly inaccurate” and based on outdated statistics and practices. 

DOC released its own report Monday saying over the last six years, roughly 77 percent of probationers have moved through the system successfully — without being sentenced to additional probation or incarceration at level 4 or 5 facilities. 

DeMatteis sees the proportion of probationers who have not successfully moved through the system as appropriate. 

“They’re the ones that are not adhering to the terms of their probation,” she said. “They’re the ones with guns and drugs causing problems in our community. Effective community supervision includes when a probationer violates the terms of their condition, if they have a gun, if they continue to deal drugs, if they continue to commit crimes, guess what? They are going back to prison..”

DeMatteis also says the ACLU report ignores what she sees as “innovative practices” DOC has put in place. She points to expansion of case management to help probationers find employment and housing, and says every probationer in Delaware has access to re-entry services. 

The ACLU admits Delaware has many community-based reentry programs to help probationers succeed, but says the programs cannot meet current demand. 

Dubard McGriff, who served probation twice and now organizes the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign, argues Delaware’s probation system is largely punitive rather than rehabilitative, particularly for those that are not eligible for programming. 

“It’s not as punitive as it was, but you still have POs [probation officers]—some of them do go above and beyond—but most cases I don't see any social services type of feel from probation," he said. "It’s always punitive and coming from an authoritative overseeing type of thing. And I know that’s a part of the mission, but the other side of the mission is to readjust people into society.”


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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