Efforts to overhaul probation in Pennsylvania may be complicated by six recent murders believed to have been committed by parolees. Nevertheless, the reforms continue to draw bipartisan support.
Advocates from across the political spectrum are promoting bills in Harrisburg Tuesday that would ease probation rules. Jessica Jackson, Chief Advocacy Officer from the Reform Alliance, said more than 15 groups are lobbying lawmakers to support the measures, which have both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
Jackson said the groups range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. Some prosecutors and others from law enforcement also support changes to probation, according to Jackson.
“It’s a really wide cross-section of support that reflects all of Pennsylvania really wanting to see some reform happen,” Jackson said.
Probation allows some offenders to stay out of prison and be supervised in the community. Courts have placed 178,000 Pennsylvanians under the supervision, according to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
If those on probation miss a meeting with their probation officer, fail to pay court fines, or violate other court-ordered rules, state law says they can be put behind bars for the rest of their sentence.
“For Pennsylvanians, they should be thinking about, how do they want their dollars spent?” Jackson said. “Do they really want people being locked up for things that aren’t even crimes, like missing probation appointments? Or do they want to save that money and put it towards preventing crime?”
A report released in June found that the state spends more than $100 million annually to imprison people for technical violations of probation and parole. It also found that, on a typical day, more than 7,400 people are incarcerated in Pennsylvania for violating the terms of their probation or parole.
“These are the things that are driving the incarceration rate in Pennsylvania,” said David Safavian, General Counsel for the American Conservative Union, which supports changes to the state’s probation system.
“It’s a function of having this current system where you can be on probation for years, if not decades – even for a misdemeanor – that makes no sense whatsoever.”
Safavian said it is a concern that parolees are suspected of committing murder after being freed. But, he said, there's a big difference between releasing serious offenders from prison, and imprisoning people for violating probation rules.
State Sens. Anthony Williams (D - Philadelphia) and Camera Bartolotta (R - Washington County) have introduced a bill that would limit how long people could be on probation. State Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R - Cumberland County) has introduced similar legislation, with Democratic support, in the state House.
Both proposals are awaiting a vote in their respective judiciary committees.
The bills would cap the length of probation at two or three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies. They also would limit how long people could be sent to prison for violating the terms of the probation.
Courts also would not be permitted to extend supervision if a probationer cannot afford to pay court fines or fees or restitution. And probationers would be able to earn time off the end of their sentence by complying with the terms of their supervision and not committing new crimes.
A poll released Tuesday by reform advocates suggests such reforms are popular. It estimates that 75 percent of Pennsylvania voters would back limits on how long people can be put on probation, and how long they can be punished for violating probation rules.
66 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of Democrats, and 73 percent of Independents said they would support such changes. The poll was commissioned by the Justice Action Network, which advocates for criminal justice reform, and was based on a sample of 500 registered voters.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker (R - Luzerne County) said in a statement that her committee will not take any action until it holds a hearing on the recent homicides. Committee members, she wrote, must first be "satisfied that the decisionmaking infrastructure and checks are currently sufficient to safeguard the public and communities."
House Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Kauffman (R - Franklin County) agreed that, although the homicides were allegedly committed by men on parole, they are “interconnected” with the state’s approach to probation. Both forms of supervision, he said, raise questions about how to limit threats to public safety.
In the meantime, Delozier said she will continue to work with her counterparts in the Senate to address those concerns, and to reconcile differences between their bills.
“The bottom line for us,” Delozier said, “is that we’re going to keep pushing because we want to be able to make sure that those [on probation] that want to have a change in their lives and want to be working and want to be out [of prison], and stay out, can have that opportunity, and that they’re not being sent back to jail because they’re late to an appointment.”