In the Pa. House, encouraging steps on criminal justice reform continue | John L. Micek

April 17, 2019 4:07 pm

Pa. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks at a Capitol news conference on April, 17, 2019. (Capital-Star file photo)

For state Rep. Sheryl Delozier, the journey to becoming an advocate for crime victims began when she started accompanying victims of rape and domestic abuse to the hospital.

Delozier, R-Cumberland, spent 10 years volunteering with the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, helping women through some of the darkest and most vulnerable moments of their lives.

“It was something you don’t forget,” Delozier said during a Capitol news conference Wednesday, where she and her fellow House Republicans ran down the roster of victims’ rights bills that have passed the chamber with unusual speed over the last couple of weeks.

On Monday, for instance, a pair of House committees advanced bills dealing with the recommendations from last year’s grand jury report on hundreds of “predator” Catholic priests. That action came less than a week after the full chamber gave the greenlight to a civil window for older sex abuse victims.

Delozier is one of the prime sponsors of Marsy’s Law, which would enshrine protections for victims in the Pennsylvania Constitution. The bill passed the House for the second time on a 190-8 vote on April 8. If the Senate approves it, the voters will get their say at a statewide referendum.

Not without cause, civil libertarians have expressed reservations about Marsy’s Law, warning of unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation.

“For good reason, our laws treat the rights of victims and the rights of the accused differently,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “When a person is accused of a crime, they are facing the awesome power of the government, which is trying to deprive them of their liberty. That is why the rights of people who are presumed to be innocent are embedded into the Constitution.”

But Delozier is also the sponsor of a bill, with House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, that would prevent those on probation and parole from being sent back to prison for non-violent or technical violations. That would include associating with someone with a criminal history, traveling outside one’s jurisdiction, and testing positive for marijuana.

The two bills, along with some other criminal justice reform proposals now making the rounds, are evidence of something that’s all-too-rare in Harrisburg: evidence of an actual through-line in policymaking; a recognition that action taken in one part of state government has ripple effects in other parts of state government.

After two decades of a “Get Tough” approach on crime that did little to address its systemic causes, while warehousing people convicted of crimes and sending the state’s prison budget through the roof, lawmakers and gubernatorial administrations have seemingly come around.

Criminal justice reform work begun under the administration of GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, continued under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and overseen for nearly a decade under both administrations by Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel has resulted in a sea change in thinking about criminal justice policy. The state has emerged as a national model for reform.

At ground level, that’s resulted in white, suburban Republicans like Delozier, who are budget-conscious, partnering with black, big-city Democrats like Harris, who see the re-enfranchisement of former inmates as integral to rebuilding communities shattered by those same, earlier bad policies.

“I tend to be a forgiving person,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said. “I do believe in giving people a second chance.”

The Republican event came just a day after House Democrats rolled out a five-bill package aimed at providing increased oversight and training for law enforcement, even as they seek to rebuild the bonds of trust with communities of Pennsylvanians who have come to view police officers with suspicion and even disdain.

The end goal, the lawmakers said, is to avert the kind of fatal interaction between police officers and such unarmed black youth and men as Antwon Rose II, of East Pittsburgh, and David Jones, of Philadelphia, who were both shot and killed in separate incidents, sparking protests and public outcries in their hometowns.

“These bills are not anti-police,” said Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, who’s spearheading the reform push. “This is legislation that will help our police departments and it will help our communities. We want to create an environment where police departments have every tool that they need so that they are safely policing our communities; so that they are getting every training that they need. We want to ensure that our communities are safe. But also that our departments are safe.”

As recently as three or four years ago, House Republicans would have dismissed the plan advanced by Lee and her colleagues as a complete non-starter. And while Cutler’s office didn’t exactly race to embrace the Democrats’ reform package, it didn’t immediately reject it either.

That’s an encouraging sign. That’s because better training for officers improves police-community relations, and means less crime and fewer chances for a repeat of a tragedy like Antwon Rose.

And less crime means fewer victims, lower costs and fewer people in prison and fewer broken families. That leaves more money, relatively speaking, for workforce development, public education, and other programs that lift the barriers to opportunity.

And that means, you guessed it, less crime.

It seems so obvious that you’d think lawmakers would have embraced it earlier. But sometimes it takes both a financial shock to the system to drive that simple truth home — not to mention new and young voices to take up the reform banner.

On Wednesday, Delozier said spiraling prison costs dictated that the state had to rethink its approach. Spending on criminal justice programs, which includes the Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, along with the Board of Probation and Parole and other programs, is set to rise from current, approved spending of nearly $2.5 billion to nearly $2.7 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That’s still a healthy chunk of change, but it’s a comparably modest increase compared to past budget cycles.

“Our justice system needs to find balance,” Delozier said Wednesday. “You have victims and you need to address things for them. Someone who has paid their debt to society … should have the chance to turn their lives around.”

It’s so simple you’d think they’d have done it already.

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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.