A bipartisan team of state lawmakers are leading an effort to ease Pennsylvania's probation rules. State Senators Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington County) and Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) introduced a bill early this year to shorten probation terms and limit punishment for probation violations.
The topic was the subject of a two-day hearing in Harrisburg last month. Days before the hearing, a new report revealed that the state spends more than $100 million a year to house people for technical violations of probation and parole.
More than 57,000 people statewide are on probation, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. Commission data show that 42 percent of sentences used probation instead of jail time.
In Allegheny County, more than 7,000 people were under probation supervision in 2017. Nearly half of sentences included probation in lieu of prison time.
The data also show that in 2017, probation sentences across the state ranged from two months for a DUI offense to an average of 10 years for kidnapping and rape.
Under probation, a person found guilty of a crime is released from custody. But that person must be supervised by a probation officer and comply with court-ordered rules. Requirements can include attending meetings with a probation officer, passing drug tests, or getting treated for substance use. Probationers can go to jail if they break a rule.
Bartolotta said her bill would help to reduce the cost of probation while creating a more just system.
“The idea here is not to let people just get away with everything – that’s not it at all,” Bartolotta said. “It’s to not throw people behind bars for infractions that would never result in that if they weren’t on probation in the first place.”
“In Pennsylvania, we have so many people who are in an endless revolving door when it comes to being reincarcerated for what are technical violations: things that would never be a prisonable offense,” she added.
As an example, Bartolotta said, someone who is on probation today could be confined if they miss a call with a probation officer because they must work late. A speeding ticket could also land a probationer behind bars.
Bartolotta and Williams’ bill calls for a “graduated response to administrative probation violations,” meaning judges would be limited in how severely they can punish technical violations. But, Bartolotta said, punishment would become harsher with repeat violations.
“So, what we’re trying to do is [to] … not punish small offenses in a disproportionate manner,” the legislator said.
Under the bill, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission would adopt specific guidelines, but the legislation prohibits punishing a violation with more than 30 days of imprisonment. Currently, judges may imprison probationers who commit any technical violation for the rest of their probation sentence.
The law also allows probation to last as long as the maximum sentence the probationer would have faced if confined. But under the proposed reform, probation could not exceed five years for felony convictions and three years for misdemeanors.
Courts also would not be permitted to extend supervision if a probationer cannot afford to pay court fines or fees or restitution. And the bill would give people who are under supervision the opportunity to petition for early termination of their probation. The probationer, however, would first have to complete 18 months of their sentence without committing violations or new crimes.
Bartolotta expects the state Senate Judiciary Committee to take up the bill when it returns in September from summer recess.
“I know that this is one of the priorities of the Judiciary Committee,” said Bartolotta, who herself sits on the committee.
The legislator added that she is “absolutely” confident the bill will become law.