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You had been dutifully reporting to your probation officer or parole supervisor for months, or even years. You were on track to complete the probation and resume normal life. Then COVID-19 happened, and Pennsylvania -- along with much of the world -- shut down. What are you supposed to do now? What does probation reporting during the Coronavirus pandemic look like? What do you need to do to be sure you follow the court’s orders?
A probation order is just that: an order. It is your own personal law. That means you cannot decide to change it simply because it is inconvenient or difficult. However, when the governor of the state issues an executive order, which one applies may not be entirely clear.
On March 23, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf ordered the residents of Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties to stay home except for essential travel. This order was later expanded to the entire state, and extended until at least June 4, 2020. Unlike in other states, the Pennsylvania Stay at Home order did not explicitly include an exception for travel required by a court order. However, the state’s website included “Travel required by law enforcement or court order” in a list of allowable essential travel.
Even if the travel is authorized, many probationers may find the local court offices closed when they get there. The state has directed local governments to use their best judgment in implementing the COVID-19 guidance. That means that specific closures and policies will depend on where your probation officer works. Delaware County has not provided residents specific guidance on probation reporting during quarantine. However, other counties have cancelled DUI classes and shifted probation reporting to telephone calls, rather than in-person meetings. If you can’t find instructions for your own probation or parole office, you should email your probation officer right away to ask for instructions, and get the answers in writing.
Local probation and parole offices are also about to become busier as they respond to an influx of newly released inmates. On April 10, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf announced the Reprieve of Sentence of Incarceration Program. This program offers clemency and suspends the jail or prison sentences of inmates who meet certain criteria. Those vulnerable to COVID-19 because of chronic medical conditions can seek clemency if they have less than 12 months until they reach their minimum sentence. Healthy individuals can apply 9 months from the end of their minimum sentence. Inmates must also have a positive recommendation for release from the state Board of Probation and Parole, and a home plan in place.
In most cases, that home plan will continue ongoing supervision through probation or parole. This transition will be further complicated by the ongoing stay-at-home orders and closed local courthouses, and could cause some of these early-release inmates to unwittingly violate their probation or parole. If you know someone who is seeking clemency, you should be certain they have received clear instructions on when and how to complete probation or parole intake once they have been released.
It isn’t just the reporting requirements that are creating problems for probationers as the COVID-19 pandemic response drags on. Most probation orders include terms that probationers must complete before their period is over:
Traveling to any of these would go against the Pennsylvania stay-at-home order, but because they are required by a court order they are considered essential. That said, many of these classes have been cancelled or converted to online meetings. Where DUI classes or therapy sessions are cancelled, it may also delay your ability to complete your probation and move on. There may be online options available. Be sure you talk to your probation officer about whether online participation will be enough and how to document your attendance.
The COVID-19 shutdowns have also caused vast numbers of Pennsylvania residents to lose their jobs. Most probation orders require probationers to obtain and maintain full-time employment. If you are laid off because of the shutdowns you should tell your probation officer right away, and take steps to seek replacement employment, even if you don’t think they will be successful. The key is to show that you are trying to comply with the probation order.
If you find yourself facing probation violation charges because of COVID-19, you will need the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney to establish that the cause of your non-compliance was beyond your control. At Berman & Associates, our experienced criminal defense attorneys want to protect your freedom and your rights. We are working hard from home to make sure you can receive a zealous defense even during the Coronavirus shutdown. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a virtual consultation with an attorney about how we can help with your probation violation case.
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