With House committee vote looming, advocate talks about the fate of probation reform: Monday Morning Coffee

December 9, 2019 7:14 am

(*This post has been updated)

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

The state House is convening for a non-voting session day this Monday morning. And topping the docket is a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, which is slated to report out a bipartisan bill that makes some profound changes to Pennsylvania’s badly broken probation system.

If it’s approved by the House and Senate, and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, aims to halt what’s now a revolving door between the probation system and prison.

We chatted recently with Jessica Jackson, the chief advocacy officer for the REFORM Alliance, a nationwide group working toward reforming the system. The group, borne out of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s own travails with the system, has been in the forefront of the legislative push that takes a step forward with the Judiciary Committee’s 1:30 p.m. session in the House Majority Caucus Room.

(*Updated, 7:42 a.m.: We’re now being told by those close to the issue that it’s all-but-guaranteed that the Judiciary Committee will gut the reform bill and replace the reform language and make the law worse. We’ll have coverage on the issue today.

*In a statement, Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for the REFORM Alliance, said the advocacy group “expects there will be changes made today, but this is only the first step in the process. Coalition members will continue working together with lawmakers to achieve meaningful changes to Pennsylvania’s broken probation system.”

The conversation below has been lightly edited for content and clarity. 

(Jessica Jackson of the REFORM Alliance, submitted photo)

Q: What’s the bottom line of what’s happening before the Judiciary Committee today? Why does the average Pennsylvanian need to care?

Jackson: “We’re really excited that a Pennsylvania House committee is going to be moving this legislation.
It was sunshined [publicly advertised] for a hearing. And then it was canceled. [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob] Kauffman and others felt so strongly about getting it done that they scheduled a non-session working day to get this done. We’re excited the House has heard the voice of Pennsylvania and [is] getting started on the work of addressing a broken probation system. We’re hoping to get a vote in the House by the end of the week of Dec. 16.”

Maurice Hudson, who was imprisoned for his inability to pay $1,900 in court fees and fines, is free on parole pending a hearing (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

Q: So what’s the heart of the problem here? What’s wrong with the system?

Jackson: “Currently, Pennsylvania has the third-largest number of people on probation of any state in the country. Instead of it being a public safety solution, and getting people back on their feet after they commit a crime, it’s become a revolving door.

Pennsylvania is now spending over $100 million a year in taxpayer dollars supervising people who are on probation. They’re locking them up for missing meetings with their probation officers and not being able to afford their restitution payments — Meek Mill is the most famous example of that. This [bill] is basically a public safety solution … to get people back on track.”

Rep. Rob Kauffman, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a voting meeting on guns Tuesday, September 24, that he would not ever allow a vote on a red flag law. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Q: This is talked about a lot, but we’d be curious for your take: Probation reform is an issue that’s brought together advocates from across the system. Why do you think that’s the case?

Jackson: “There’s a right-left coalition on criminal justice reform that’s formed over the last five years nationally. We’ve seen everyone from Koch Industries to the ACLU get together to support a bill that didn’t just free people from prison, but one that also focused on creating a rehabilitative system.

What you’re seeing in Pennsylvania is a continuation of that. Both sides are tired of wasting taxpayer money on things that don’t work, and want to focus on coming up with solutions that do [work]. Democrats have been working on this issue for a long time. Among Republicans, you have evangelicals who believe in the power of redemption and second chances. And you have libertarians who are focused on fiscal responsibility. The underlying reason is that we [all] do believe this will make our communities safer.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.