In Pennsylvania, more than half of incarcerated people are jailed due to probation violations. We speak with formerly incarcerated activist LaTonya Myers, who says probation and parole, rather than being a stepping stone to freedom, act as a “streamline to mass incarceration,” with punitive rules landing people back behind bars for minor violations. Myers helps people arrested navigate the bail review system as support coordinator with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and is featured in the new PBS documentary series “Philly D.A.” about Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s attempts to reform the criminal justice system. “We just want a part of the American dream,” says Myers. “But it hasn’t been American dream for us. It’s American nightmare.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: Can the Criminal Justice System Be Reformed? PBS Series “Philly D.A.” Follows Larry Krasner’s Efforts
- Part 2: “Mass Supervision”: How Restrictive Probation & Parole Systems Land People Behind Bars for Decades
- Part 3: Philly DA Larry Krasner Fights for Reelection Amid Police Union Attacks on His Reform Agenda
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The fourth episode of Philly D.A. focuses on probation and parole. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner refers to it as, quote, “mass supervision, the evil twin of mass incarceration.” The episode tells the story of LaTonya Myers, a formerly incarcerated person who becomes an activist who helps people who are arrested with navigating the bail review system. In this clip, Myers addresses a Pennsylvania state Senate hearing on probation reform.
LATONYA MYERS: Within the last 18 months, I was able to start school, start community college — I apologize, I’m a little nervous. But I was able to find my voice and become an advocate, to be a part of the solution and not the problem.
I think when it comes to true probation reform, we have to start with the reform of the culture in the probation department. I mean, the culture in the probation department is not one that’s encouraging. It’s not empowerment. When I got on probation, all I was told was I have to come in here weekly and report. I was looked at as high risk because of an algorithm that, no matter what I accomplished, ’til 2027, it would never change.
That is a meaningless, endless cycle, a cycle of trauma, a cycle of pain, and some of the effects can be irreversible. We just want to give a true, fair second chance, not a second-class citizen, but a fair second chance, to prove ourselves and to build our communities up. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Philly D.A. of activist LaTonya Myers testifying about probation reform. This is another clip featuring LaTonya.
LATONYA MYERS: I’m getting ready to go to the probation office. Impression is everything, because all they know is what they’re reading on that paper. She don’t know who I am for real. So, got to make a good impression. She got my life in her hands. I make the wrong impression, she might make the wrong decision or the wrong assumption, you know? A relationship, you can walk away. You can’t walk away from this.
It was a couple days after my 12th birthday. I woke up that morning, and my mom’s boyfriend had took her bed and dragged it all the way down the steps. He was out of control. I thought that I could protect my mom. And I picked up like an air freshener can, and I hit him with it. He went to a payphone, called the police. When I seen the cops, I thought that they would understand what was going on. I was charged with aggravated assault in the first degree.
That was the first time I ever was in jail. For three days, I didn’t know where my mom was at. I didn’t know if any of my family knew where I was at. I was just there. And it was so hard. Finally, my lawyer pulled me to the side, and she says, “Your grandmom’s here. You take this probation, you go home with your grandmother today, or go back to jail for another 10 days and fight this case.” I just wanted to go home with my grandma.
I’m 29, and that first felony from when I was 12 years old is what get brings up, time and time again, my only felony on my record, that I shouldn’t even have.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s LaTonya Myers in Philly D.A., the PBS series that’s airing now. LaTonya joins us now. She is support coordinator for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, also the founder of the organization Above All Odds. Still with us, Nicole Salazar, co-creator of the PBS series Philly D.A.
LaTonya, welcome to Democracy Now! The figures are absolutely astounding. You have Philadelphia as the second most supervised state in the country after Georgia. New York has 12,000 people under probation and parole. It’s six times larger than Philadelphia. Philadelphia has 40,000 people under probation and parole. Your story tells the story of what so many people are going through. If you can take us from those clips to why you became an activist on this issue, why you think it is a critical civil rights issue in this country right now?
LATONYA MYERS: First, I just want to say thank you all so much for allowing me to be on this segment today and talk about these issues that impact us so greatly.
When we talk about probation and parole, that is the streamline to mass incarceration. And the reason I was inspired in being an advocate, I found my purpose through my pain. You know, I was arrested. I didn’t know what advocate or activist was until I started to voice — raise the voices of our concerns and learned that it was a community of organizers, it was a community of people that understood that and explained to me that this was systematically happening on purpose. So I just wanted to lift up those voices of those that wasn’t being heard, to let people know that we’re closest to the problem, so we’re closest to the solution. We don’t — no longer will allow anyone to tell us that, you know, we can’t and won’t change, if given the opportunity, nor conform to the negative stigmas that’s attached to us as returning citizens. So, this work has became my life and my purpose, to help others.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, LaTonya, a lot of people are not aware how the parole and probation system works in terms of mass incarceration. In Pennsylvania, more than half of the people admitted into the prison system are as a result of violations of probation or parole? What’s been done to attempt to reform that system?
LATONYA MYERS: So, there have been many attempts, you know, statewide attempts, bipartisan efforts. I know that the Defenders Association of Philadelphia has filed 1,700 early termination petitions, 85 of them — 85% of them which has been individuals have been granted early termination. But this is on a case-by-case basis. You know, we need something more robust, more statewide, on caps. In Philadelphia, a judge can sentence you until you cease to live on this Earth to be on probation and parole, 20- and 30-plus-year sentences for probation and parole. And I think that needs to stop.
So, I am happy to hear the efforts that the Defenders Association is doing, but particularly the efforts that grassroot organizations and impacted people are doing to let individuals know that we want to be a part of this conversation. We need to be a part of this change. We need to allow people to know that our narrative, of what it is. We just want to be citizens. We want to be heard. We want to be uplifted. We want to be supported and endorsed like everyone else, in order for us to be successful, that we need people’s support and understanding that we just want a part of the American dream. But it hasn’t been American dream for us; it’s American nightmare.
AMY GOODMAN: Nicole Salazar, in the film, Larry Krasner says one in 14 African American Philadelphians are under probation or parole. And the significance of what not only the DA’s Office is doing, but trying to pressure judges?
NICOLE SALAZAR: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think probation and parole is one of those areas where you really see how the DA has a lot of discretion and a lot of power, but also a lot of limits on what they can do.
So, one of the main drivers of excessive supervision in Pennsylvania is actually state law, sentencing laws, that are formulated in such a way that you have basically a minimum and a maximum. So, you can be sentenced to a five-to-10-year sentence in Pennsylvania, whereas in another state you might be able to get a flat four-year sentence, four years in prison, and maybe some probation on top of that. But in Pennsylvania, because it’s always in this formulation of X to 2X, you automatically — you know, if you’re released after your minimum of 10 years, you’re going to then serve that same amount on parole, so that would be 10 years in prison, 10 years on parole, then possibly plus an additional probation sentence on top of that. So that’s sort of baked into Pennsylvania law, and so that’s something that, you know, on a local county level in Philadelphia, you cannot change.
But what they do have discretion over is more of the probation tail that is assigned. And they’ve made efforts — what you see in the film is basically a two-pronged effort of what they’re trying to do. One is for cases going forward, that they’re trying to limit overall supervision, so parole plus probation, to three years for felony cases and an average of 18 for misdemeanor cases. And so, they have a tremendous amount of discretion there, because, you know, nationally, 95% of all criminal cases are resolved through negotiated pleas. And so, a negotiated plea basically means the prosecutor and the defense attorney come together with a proposed sentence that they then present to the judge. And for the most part, judges will accept those pleas, because if they didn’t, if every case had to go to trial — and you hear this in the film, and people say it all the time — you know, the system would literally collapse if all of those cases, thousands of cases coming through the system every year, that are being handled by 60-odd judges in Philadelphia — if they all went to trial, the system would collapse. And so, there’s a lot of pressure on the judges to accept those negotiated pleas. So, that’s kind of where that discretionary power really comes into play.
But the other part of what they’re trying to do — and this is where you see a lot of pushback from the judges in the film — is that they would like to, on a large scale, revisit so many of those 40,000 people who are on probation or parole in Philadelphia who are doing well, and, like LaTonya was saying, have them terminated early from that probation. And here’s where you really sort of need cooperation between the judges and the DA’s office and the public defender’s office, because what they were hoping to do was sort of look on sort of like a broad data scale and see: How many people do we have on probation? How well are they doing? Are there people that, you know, just with the signing of a pen — where we could sign the forms and get a lot of people off probation at once?
But what you see, basically, is that the judiciary does not want to move that quickly. They still are, many of them, very married to sort of this idea that being on probation is actually pro-public safety, even though there’s a lot of compelling evidence that actually shows why actually being on probation can be criminogenic just because of all of the hurdles that are put before somebody to be on probation and still be able to maintain other aspects of their life, their job, their family. And so, you see in the film that the judiciary is not really ready to take this step. They’re not able to do it on a broad scale. You know, there was hope at some point that even LaTonya’s case might possibly be included in sort of these mass petitions they were trying to do. But that doesn’t go forward. And there are, I think, nine judges, at the time of the end of that episode, who do say, “OK, we’re going to do some mass early terminations just in terms of our individual lists.” And that process is still ongoing, but it wasn’t as robust a process as they were hoping for.
AMY GOODMAN: LaTonya, if you can talk about your own organization, [Above] All Odds, and what you’re hoping to see right now, and if a progressive DA, like Larry Krasner, who’s up for reelection, really does make a difference in Philadelphia? What does it look like to you, working with so many people on probation and parole who are captured by the system?
LATONYA MYERS: Well, I just want to say thank you for that question, and I think when Nicole brought up a good point. All through this episode, you hear the judges saying, “We don’t want them to break the system. They’re going to break the system.” Well, the system needs to be broken and abolished in order to restore and heal our community, because it’s breaking us apart. It’s tearing our families apart.
And, you know, I just hope that our community continues to be civically engaged. I hope that people look at this film and be inspired to know that they can, too, advocate. They can go to their local representatives. They can advocate for themselves in a courtroom. We have to know that we have the power to uplift the voices that make the impact that we need. You know, we have to depend and understand that we are the force that makes the power. We can’t put it in one person’s hand. But what we can do is make sure that our voices are heard and our narratives are correct. And that is that we want to bring hope and healing back into our community, not any harm.
So, I just want to say thank you to all the people that was able to support me in the community, and I want others to support other people. And I wanted my organization to be able to support people to have those resources, to have that community impact. When people go in those courtrooms alone, they don’t have to do it alone. You know, we have a community of people that can correct this narrative that’s trying to get depicted on us to keep us entangled, further entangled, into the system. So, I just thank, you know, the film crew and everyone for allowing me to have this opportunity to inspire. I want individuals that’s held on probation and parole to stay strong, to understand that you can get off, that we are fighting, that you are not your worst mistake. If I did it, you can do it.
Any support that I had, I want people to be able to galvanize the support around individuals that’s currently going through it. We have people that have, you know, lost their life, lost their job, lost family members, while we’re slowly waiting for the system to turn, change and be more compassionate and uplifting. They spent $344 million on incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania for technical violations, that they didn’t even catch a case. If we take a percentage of that and reinvest it into addressing the issues as to why individuals can’t make it to their probation appointment on time — why is it hard for them to find housing, when it’s discriminated — when they’re discriminated on housing applications for employment? If they can’t — if they’re boxed out of opportunities to climb in careers, if they’re boxed out of opportunities to live in better neighborhoods, or even boxed out of opportunities to get Pell Grants to go back to school, how can they really think, you know, we’re going to be able, if we’re not really able to be amongst our communities with the same resources, with the same opportunities as others?
Right now in Philadelphia, the commissioner is requesting $750 million for the police budget, $750 million that right now she’s testifying and asking our City Council to allot this for the budget. There’s not a percentage — how much is it going to take for us as a community to reinvest into the problem and not locking us up? You know? And that’s what we just ask for as a community, for people to allow us to be in these spaces and talk about the resources that we need and that’s most helpful.
And I want individuals to be uplifted, specifically individuals that’s people of color and the LGBT community. I want them to know that we exist, you know, that we are fighting and that you are heard and that you’re not alone and that you can do the same thing that I did with the community’s support. And let’s keep focused on civic engagement and individuals finding their voices and sitting at the table of power and speaking truth to that power.
AMY GOODMAN: LaTonya Myers, I want to thank you so much for being with us, formerly incarcerated person who became an activist to support others going through the system, support coordinator with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, founder of the organization Above All Odds. And thanks to Nicole Salazar, co-creator of the PBS series Philly D.A.
When we come back, we look at how DA Larry Krasner faces reelection next week in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary. Stay with us.