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It’s time to fix Pennsylvania’s probation system

There’s a growing urgency — and willingness — to fix Pennsylvania’s probation system.

Pennsylvania lawmakers can’t squander this opportunity.

About 178,000 people are on probation in Pennsylvania. Criminal justice reform advocates and a growing number of lawmakers say that number is too high. The system is unnecessarily expensive and punitive. Too many people are on probation for too long, making it exceedingly difficult for those trying for a fresh start.

The good news? There’s a broad, bipartisan recognition that the probation system needs reform. Gov. Tom Wolf has called on lawmakers to reform probation.

“Punishment should fit the crime,” Wolf said in November. “Punishment should not be endless.”

Between probation, parole and prisons, Pennsylvania has the second highest rate of people under correctional control in the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Most other states have defined limits on probation and several states have found ways to reduce the number of people under court supervision.

In Pennsylvania, many spend years on probation, making it harder for them to find work. Some end up going to county jails or state prisons due to technical violations, advocates and lawmakers say.

Probation, which is meant to be an alternative to incarceration, has become a driving force in putting people behind bars, advocates and researchers say. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says he supports efforts to shorten probation terms and reduce the prison population.

If they don’t end up behind bars, violators often strike deals with prosecutors to extend their sentences by years.

Advocates are pushing for reforms to ensure those struggling to pay fines and court supervision costs don’t end up going to jail over an inability to pay. Putting those individuals behind bars can cost them their jobs, which only makes it more difficult to start over (and pay their bills, including court costs).

Experts and advocates say the greatest risk for those on probation to commit new crimes is within the first year. Advocates and some probation officers say there’s little to be gained by maintaining court supervision of most on probation beyond two years.

Yet one in three people on probation — about 60,000 people – are serving sentences of three years or longer. Probation officers say they could use staff and resources better by actively monitoring only those who need supervision.

Republicans and Democrats have crafted legislation to fix the system. Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, have sponsored a bill in the state House. State Sens. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, have sponsored a bill in the Senate.

While many lawmakers agree that the probation system needs to be fixed, they don’t agree on how to do it.

Some want uniform caps on probation terms and the Senate bill calls for such limits: three years for misdemeanors and five years for probations. The House bill had similar language which was dropped, disappointing some advocates. The House measure now includes a presumption that probation would end after five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors. Under the House bill, mandatory conferences would enabling judges to shorten terms.

Advocates cringed at some of the changes. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania dropped its support of the House bill, arguing it no longer ensures a reduction in probation sentences. The ACLU also objects to new provisions that would allow for warrantless searches of offenders.

Delozier and Harris say the legislation is being negotiated and is a work in progress. It still must go through the House and Senate. Lawmakers say they are committed to getting a bill to the governor this year, hopefully in the spring.

“We want to find that sweet spot for a compromise,” Delozier said.

Reforming the probation system doesn’t just help offenders turn their lives around. Probation reform can bolster Pennsylvania’s economy by enabling more people to get back into the workforce. That’s one reason why a number of Republicans are backing efforts to fix the system.

While Harrisburg has had no shortage of partisan shenanigans, state lawmakers have worked together admirably on criminal justice reform, including the Clean Slate law, which allows those with convictions of less serious crimes to clear their record.

Last month, lawmakers approved a package of reforms that will allow some lower-level offenders to be eligible for parole more quickly. Lawmakers also approved a bill creating an advisory panel to improve the probation system.

There are honest disagreements in fixing Pennsylvania’s flawed probation system. But lawmakers must work with a sense of urgency to get a measure to the governor this spring. With the fall elections, the Legislature probably won’t get much done in the second half of the year. And this issue demands immediate attention.

Offenders don’t deserve a free pass. But they do deserve a second chance.

The (Harrisburg) Patriot News

www.Pennlive.com

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