The Lead

‘A Pyrrhic victory’: Pa. Senate sends House probation bill that reformers say doesn’t fix a broken and expensive system

By: - July 16, 2020 1:17 pm
Senators Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, announce their probation and parole reform bill in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 28.

Senators Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, announce their probation and parole reform bill in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 28, 2019.

In a move that disappointed some criminal justice reform advocates, Pennsylvania’s state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved changes to the state’s probation laws, legislation that is projected to have modest impacts on state prison populations.

The bill sponsored by Sens. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, still needs approval from the state House before it can land on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Advocates across the political spectrum heralded the proposal when it was introduced last January, calling it a necessary fix to an expensive probation system whose lengthy terms have saddled Pennsylvania with the second-highest probation rate in the nation.

The original Senate bill aimed to limit how long someone can spend on probation in Pennsylvania. Right now, the commonwealth is one of the few states in the nation that does not put a firm limit on community supervision sentences.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee removed that provision and added a slew of new requirements for people on probation, saying the changes were necessary to secure bipartisan support for the bill. That led groups including the ACLU of Pennsylvania and an association representing probation officers to drop their support for the proposal.

“I just don’t see this solving any of the initial intentions of the reform,” said Helene Placey, director of the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star in June. “It just adds more layers and requirements.”

Changes to landmark Senate bill overhauling Pa.’s probation system costs it support among criminal justice reformers

Placey warned that provisions in the amended bill, including a requirement for probationers to appear before judges for mandatory review hearings, would burden the state’s courts while doing little to reduce caseloads for probation officers.

A fiscal analysis that the Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled this week suggests she may be right. 

The committee, which analyzes how legislation will affect state spending, expects that the amended bill will save the Department of Corrections $5 million annually – a modest sum for an agency that commanded a $2.1 billion budget last year.

Some Democrats who supported the bill said it was an incremental step in an ongoing reform effort.

“More reforms are needed, but today’s passage is great for [Pennsylvania],” state Sen. Lindsay Williams, D-Allegheny, tweeted Wednesday. 

But some members in the Senate’s Republican majority didn’t see it that way.

“This in my mind is closer to the final step than being a first step,” state Sen. Dave Arnold, R-Lebanon, said, according to PennLive. “[Probationers should] earn their second chance, not get it handed to them.”

The ACLU-PA accused the Senate on Wednesday of watering down the reform effort to secure a swift passage before the chamber adjourned for summer recess. 

The Senate sacrificed all of the fundamental, structural changes to Pennsylvania’s probation system in order to tout a bipartisan, but unmistakably Pyrrhic, victory,” ACLU-PA executive director Elizabeth Randol said in an emailed statement. “If this bill becomes law, probation will continue to be the destructive system that it is today.”

Probation reform has been a high priority for the legislature’s bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, and Wolf has said he supports the effort. 

The Senate bill is the first probation proposal that has cleared one chamber of the General Assembly. 

Another bill from Reps. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and Sheryl DeLozier, R-Cumberland, which also underwent significant amendments in the House Judiciary Committee, and is awaiting floor votes in the lower chamber.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.