Monday, July 10, 2023

Changes may soon be coming to Pennsylvania's probation system

Recently, a bipartisan reform package passed the upper chamber 45-4. Senate Bill 838 would make exiting the probation program easier for people who reach educational or employment goals. It would also end the practice of prolonging an individual's participation in the program for minor offenses, such as a traffic ticket, reported the Erie Times-News.

“I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it — people deserve second chances,” state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) said in a press release. 

Williams co-sponsored the bill with several fellow Democrats and Republican colleagues as well, including state Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), chair of the Judiciary Committee, and state Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington), secretary of the GOP caucus. The four opposing votes came from conservative Republicans.

For likely dissimilar reasons, Senate Bill 838 is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"It continues to permit judges to stack probation sentences and to impose probation 'tails' — a term of probation imposed after a period of incarceration," the ACLU has written of the bill. "It fails to provide an automatic, or even efficient, way to terminate probation early — doing little to reduce the number of people under supervision."

Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy and operations officer at the REFORM Alliance, said this criticism ignores several substantial improvements to the system.

"A vote 'no' is a vote for the status quo," Jackson told the USA TODAY Network. "Did we get everything we wanted? No. But this is a compromise effort."

"This isn't the end of reforms in Pennsylvania," she added, "but it's an incredible first step."

The bill represents an evidence-based modernization of the system that's partly modeled after a successful York County pilot program implemented in 2016, according to Jackson. Stringent conditions — such as being confined to one county, prohibited from being in the presence of a felon and barred from being around alcohol — would no longer be automatically applied.

"We're limiting the number of things that a person could be incarcerated for under a technical violation," Jackson said.

The bill's fate is unclear in the lower chamber. Beth Rementer, press secretary for House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), said the reform package is still under review.

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