The Lead

Wolf signs cost-cutting criminal justice bills into law

By: - December 18, 2019 6:12 pm

Governor Tom Wolf signing two Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI 2) bills. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

After three years of bipartisan compromise, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law on Wednesday a pair of bills that aim to cut incarceration costs and reinvest savings in county probation offices.

The bills, known collectively as Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2, are expected to reduce state prison populations by 600 inmates over the next five years, saving taxpayers an estimated $48 million in corrections costs. 

These important pieces of legislation will cut red tape, reduce bureaucracy and result in savings of time and money,” Wolf said at a ceremony Wednesday, where he was joined by a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers from the House and Senate. “We will reinvest those savings into criminal justice programs that reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and better serve victims of crime.”

Wolf said lawmakers and advocacy groups began formulating the Justice Reinvestment package in 2017. Members of the Senate introduced a suite of three bills the following year.

Two of the bills, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Tom Killion, R-Delaware, were approved by the House on Tuesday. A third bill, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, awaits a final vote in the House. 

The Justice Reinvestment legislation had unanimous bipartisan support when they passed through the state Senate in June. 

But House and Senate Democrats objected to a last-minute amendment that the House Judiciary Committee made to Killion’s bill last week, which created new mandatory minimum sentences for offenders convicted of certain crimes against children. 

The addition of new sentences led 29 House Democrats to vote against Killion’s bill, which amends state sentencing guidelines to make it easier for offenders to enroll in a drug treatment program in lieu of serving time in state prison. 

Killion’s bill also allows for the automatic release of some non-violent offenders after the minimum requirement of their sentences — a provision that Wolf said will reduce paperwork and prevent unnecessary, ineffective incarceration. 

The bill is expected to save the state $45 million over five years. Some of those savings will be distributed as grants to Pennsylvania’s overburdened county probation offices, which oversee 86 percent of probation cases in the state. 

Those offices will also receive new technical support from the County Probation Advisory Committee, an 18-member panel created in Baker’s bill to support Pennsylvania’s 65 county probation offices.

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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.