‘Long Time Coming’: PA Senate Passes Probation Reform Bill

Change could come to the state’s probation system.

By John L. Micek | Pennsylvania Capital-Star

A Pennsylvania Probation and Parole Board badge. File photo.

bipartisan bill overhauling Pennsylvania’s probation system is headed for the state House, giving hope to reformers who have long said the state’s current, one-size-fits-all approach hobbles efforts by the formerly incarcerated to return to society and to avoid offending again.

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 45-4 to approve the legislation sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairperson Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, with the backing of Philadelphia Democratic Sens. Anthony H. Williams and Art Haywood.

In her floor remarks, Baker cast the bill against years of effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system — a movement that joined progressives pushing for a second chance and Republicans looking at the public cost of an increasingly expensive system.

“We have passed laws in recent years to offer people who complete their sentences a second chance,” but the state “will not fully realize the benefits of these changes if we don’t address the problems” posed by the current probation system, Baker said.

The proposal moved swiftly to the Senate floor, winning approval before Baker’s committee last week, just one day after it was referred to the panel. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill by a 21-3 vote on Tuesday, positioning it for the floor vote.

The bill would, among other things, help people to “safely exit the supervision system in a timely manner,” according to analysis by the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice advocacy group that has spent years pushing for the changes.

It also would narrow the legal definition of technical violations and the circumstances under which people are returned to custody because of them, that analysis indicated.

“The legislation would improve community safety by incentivizing activities proven to reduce recidivism, like education and employment, through a system of earned time credits for people on probation, which accelerates the opportunity for case reviews and early discharge,” the group wrote in its analysis.

In floor remarks, both Baker and Bartolotta highlighted the onerous nature of technical violations — and the very real obstacle they posed to formerly incarcerated people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

“Probation is supposed to be a pathway out of the criminal justice system,” Bartolotta said during her floor remarks, then, referring to the current system, adding, “Instead, Pennsylvania is adding more people to community supervision and keeping them stuck there.”

By approving the bill Tuesday, Pennsylvania will “[join] 30 other states that have responsibly addressed,” the issue, Bartolotta said.

As the Capital-Star has previously reported, out of the 50 states and Washington D.C., Pennsylvania ranks 13th nationwide for mass punishment, with 244,000 people behind bars or under some kind of supervision.

That’s a rate of 1,825 people for every 100,000 residents, according to research released last month by the Prison Policy Initiative, which took a look at incarceration and supervision rates by state.

During his first budget address in March, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro called specific attention to the state’s probation and parole system, exhorting lawmakers to fix it.

The “probation and parole systems were originally designed to help people get back on their feet and keep them out of prison,” Shapiro, the former, two-term state attorney general, observed, adding “that’s not what’s happening in reality.”

The commonwealth has a 64% recidivism rate, the Democratic governor said, meaning that nearly two-thirds of “the people who walk out of our prisons will go back, many of them for nonviolent, technical parole violations.

“The first step in improving this system is investing in probation and parole services to reduce caseloads, improve training, and enhance services,” Shapiro continued.

Williams, who said he’d spent years pushing for such reforms, said the changes had been “a long time coming.

“This institution is the representation of the commonwealth,” Williams continued. “Sometimes we don’t always work together. I can’t tell you how many of generations of people we’ve lost to the probation system.”

While lawmakers and allies may each advocate for their own issues — from criminal justice reform to public education — “we need to understand that we are all in this fight together …  I am most proud that two women brought us to this point,” he said.

Speaking to the Capital-Star last month, one formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanian said the changes were long overdue.

Reginald Smaller, who’d served consecutive sentences in state prison, found his probation extended after a serious car accident left him unable to report to his probation officer, resulting in a technical violation.

Smaller told the Capital-Star that the extension of his probation made him feel “like I was going back to jail.

“It’s not conducive to rehabilitate and help us reenter back into society and become a civilized person to society again,” Smaller said of the current system. “Trying to send me back to jail – that’s not only affecting me, I have two children, that affects my family. It puts the pressure back on them.”

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Pennsylvania Capital-Star

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