A ‘Kafkaesque Hell:’ 3 Questions on Pa’s probation system with CNN’s Van Jones | Tuesday Morning Coffee

October 22, 2019 7:08 am

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With the Legislature heading into the final weeks of an already abbreviated fall session, Van Jones wants to make sure the 253-member, majority-Republican institution keeps its eyes on a larger prize: Reforming Pennsylvania’s Byzantine and broken probation system.

Best known for his day job as a pundit on CNNJones is also the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, an organization born out of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s long struggle with probation and reincarceration. He’s pressing the Legislature to pass bills, now before the House and Senate, that would change how long people can be on probation: five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors.

The legislation, as Jones recently told the Capital-Star’s Sarah Anne Hughes, also would change the process and length of time a person can be sent back to prison for a technical violation — which isn’t a new crime, but rather failing to meet a condition like showing up for an appointment.

During a telephone interview last week, Jones spoke candidly about what the system has taught him about the resiliency of the human spirit — and what lawmakers can do to make it easier for people who are genuinely trying to change their lives.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Image via (Flickr Commons)

Q: What is it about this moment we find ourselves in now, that it makes you believe the timing is right to pass this legislation?

A: The time to act on probation reform is now. The parole system is a lot more complicated and it is a separate track. The probation system has really revealed itself to be a spiderweb of Catch-22s. You have to be at work on time every day, but also have to be across town to meet with your probation officer. People who are not committing new crimes are going back to prison because of these non-crime technical violations. We’re there to encourage forward momentum.

“There has been a very robust and positive engagement behind the scenes by all the stakeholders. We should be – this week — able to share and circulate final language [for a bill]. And I think there will be a real opportunity to get something done. Let’s just give the tens of thousands of people who are impacted by the probation system the best Christmas present ever: One that works. And I don’t see any reason for us not to cross this finish line.”

President Donald Trump (Capital-Star file)

Q: For the past few years, we’ve seen real bipartisan cooperation on this issue (The House bill is being co-sponsored by House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, who is Black, and Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a white Republican Cumberland County). How much do the factors that are bringing them to the table matter — or does it just matter that they’re there?

A: “It’s been a long time coming – that’s for sure. President [Donald] Trump becoming such a passionate convert to the issue has kept the door open for both parties to keep growing. Both parties have been growing toward each other for a good five or six years.

“It took both parties to get into this mess in the first place with draconian sentences. It will take both parties to get us back. Black Lives Matter on the left elevated from the social justice point of view; but the Tea Party and the movement around Trump, elevated it not only as a fairness issue, but a public safety issue. If you make it impossible for people to turn their lives around, you’re actually paying for more problems. We have a relatively strong economy, low unemployment, and both parties are interested. That trifecta has opened the door to get it done. While that’s happening we need to move to fix some of these very basic problems.”

Advocates for probation reform gather in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time talking with those who have been on both the inside and the outside of the system. What do they tell you? What stays with you when they talk about that experience?

A: “It makes me very sad to hear people really desperately trying to comply with all these rules and living in terror that, literally, any day, they may come up short and end up in prison. It’s a form or mental and psychological torture that I really didn’t understand. Can you imagine waking up every morning, worrying you might miss an appointment that lands you back in prison; or be late for work or fail to pick up kids on time?
How is this increasing public safety?

“When I hear those kind of stories, it’s heartbreaking to me. What if all this energy and effort  … was put toward them earning a degree or starting a business or reading to their children? Think about how much better our lives would be if that’s what we were making possible. I don’t think anyone has thought this through with a fresh piece of paper in two generations. The idea you pay a bunch of people to trail them, nail them, and jail them would be laughed off the list.

“We have this many people on probation, who need to get on with their lives, and we have this much money. Why not have coaches, trying to show them what to do better? Like time management, financial management, or anger management? I’m not saying there aren’t probation officers who do that, but that’s not the design of the system.

We talked to one woman — they took her into custody for a probation violation while she was nine months pregnant. She went into labor and had the baby in front of corrections officers. And they took the baby for six months. Her violation was a dirty urine sample. But did you really help the baby by snatching it away from the mother for six months? Are we doing things that make sense?

“The look in people’s eyes describing this Kafka-esque hell they’re in never leaves you.”

WikiMedia Commons

Our Stuff.
Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania moved a step closer to reality on Monday as a House committee advanced legislation, Stephen Caruso reports.

After accidentally taking away school police officers’ arresting power, another House committee advanced a bill to restore themElizabeth Hardison reports.

In the first of two stories, the very busy Sarah Anne Hughes introduces you to the Democratic candidate in next January’s special election in the 48th Senate District. And to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month, lawmakers remembered the 123 Pennsylvanians killed in 2018.

Legislative Republicans rolled out yet another ‘Heartbeat’ abortion ban bill, with the same glaring weakness — a complete disregard for what happens to fetuses after they’re forcibly brought to term.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: City Council further cleared the way for a new entertainment hub on the Avenue of the Arts.

On our Commentary Page, a Franklin & Marshall College professor says Pa. still has work to do on preventing lead poisoning.

Image via Flickr Commons

Pa. lawmakers are ‘hiding millions’ in campaign spending – but it’s still all legal, Spotlight PA reports.
With President Donald Trump in town this week, the Post-Gazette has the details on the usual road closing chaos that comes with a presidential visit.
A proposed $48 billion settlement with the opioids industry will ‘shave years off’ getting treatment money to Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro says. PennLive has the story.
A co-defendant to former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has lost his law license for five years, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

College chemistry students in Pennsylvania have found carbon monoxide in run of the mill vaping devicesWHYY-FM reports.
The search for a company to service the Pa. Lottery’s games and gaming system is a ‘contentious and costly venture,’ the PA Post reports.
More than 500 rural newspapers have closed or consolidated since 2004 – that’s bad news for the heartland, reports.
Talking Points Memo has the six ‘most bonkers’ moments from Monday’s Trump cabinet meeting.
The House has put the kibosh on an effort to censure Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
Hope you brought your walking shoes. It’s gonna be quite a day under the Dome.
The House comes in at 11 a.m., the Senate at 1 p.m.
9:30 a.m., Main Rotunda: Italian-American Heritage Month celebration
9:30 a.m., Finance Building: The Wolf administration provides an update on Pa.’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
10 a.m., Media Center: Presser on a bill that would make attacking someone with an intellectual or physical disability a hate crime.
10:15 a.m, 14 East Wing: USWNT legend Heather Mitts appears to call for an end to puppy mills.
10:30 a.m., Main Rotunda: Brain Injury Awareness rally
11 a.m, Media Center: Senate Dems call for Community Solar Energy projects to allow consumers to choose 100 percent solar.
11 a.m.-3 p.m., Keystone Building: The Pa. State Library commemorates LGBTQ History month with a new exhibit.
12 p.m, Main Rotunda: Fair Workweek for Pa. rally.
1 p.m., Main Rotunda: Rep. Danielle Friel Otten and others on providing menstrual hygiene products in schools.
2 p.m, Main Rotunda: Pa. Lyme Resources Network event.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 has no public schedule today.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
Limber up your checkbooks, people. It’s a doozy.
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Chris Sainato
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Steve Kinsey
8 a.m: Breakfast for Rep. Jeff Wheeland
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Bridget Malloy Kosierowski
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Sen. Scott Martin
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Mike Schlossberg
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Mike Carroll
8 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Dave Hickernell
8:30 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Jake Wheatley
8:30 a.m.: Breakfast for Rep. Gary Day
11:30 a.m.: Luncheon for Sen. Judy Schwank
11:30 a.m.: Luncheon for Sen. Dan Laughlin
5:30 p.m: Reception for Rep. Pam Snyder
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Joanna McClinton
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Sen. Maria Collett
6 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Eric Roe
6 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Donna Oberlander
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out a truly nauseating $27,500 today. Or, to put it another way, enough to make 137.5 payments to a single General Assistance recipient.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Susan Silver, of Harrisburg, and to our former PennLive colleague, Sue Gleiter, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s one from Sylvan Esso. It’s ‘Die Young.’

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
squeaked past Toronto, 4-3, in O/T at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.