By Larry Krasner
For the tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians languishing under the Commonwealth’s draconian probation rules, this holiday season seemed to hold a promise that meaningful probation reform might finally be realized by the state legislature.
One out of every 34 adults in Pennsylvania is under community supervision. This is more than a policy failure: the number of Pennsylvanians under community supervision is a byproduct of an outdated philosophy of mass incarceration that has already cost our Commonwealth dearly by breaking up families and communities, with a price tag of billions of dollars that could be better spent on infrastructure, poverty reduction, health care, and public education.
Voters around the country are rejecting this philosophy of mass incarceration and electing officials who seek transformative justice that results in stronger and safer communities. Here in Pennsylvania, there is broad, bipartisan support in both legislative chambers for meaningful probation reform.
Currently, “technical violations” that would never be considered a crime outside of the probation system nevertheless land far too many people on probation back behind bars. What’s more, Pennsylvania imposes virtually no limits on the amount of time a person can be sentenced to probation — a single crime could potentially lead to decades of government surveillance. Supervision violations are now the biggest driver of incarceration in Pennsylvania.
In its earlier form, House Bill 1555, sponsored by Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, embodied the public’s desire to bring much-needed fixes to probation. But in committee, an amendment that passed with bipartisan support not only guts the reforms that were in the original legislation, it would actually leave Pennsylvania’s already broken probation system much worse than it currently is.
This once-promising probation reform bill that was amended for the worse with little public notice or opportunity for input, is now up for a full floor vote, possibly as soon as this week.
As introduced, the House version of the legislation would have imposed a limit on the amount of time a person could be sentenced to probation. It would follow what most states already do and incentivize people on probation to reduce the length of their probation sentences through good behavior.
Previously, this legislation would have prohibited courts from stacking probation sentences consecutively, which keep people on probation for unnecessarily long periods of time despite evidence that longer probation contributes to recidivism.
These were just a few of the needed reforms in the original bill that have been stripped away.
Rather than advancing evidenced-based supervision reforms as Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have, the new provisions to the Delozier/Harris bill remove relief and increase authority and penalties, in ways both harmful and unconstitutional.
The amended version of the bill allows probation officers to search a person on probation or their property for no reason at all. Under both the state and federal constitutions, probation officers must have reasonable suspicion of a crime or violation.
The new bill before the House also threatens to cut off access to medical marijuana and medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction for people who are on probation, even if they are registered patients with the state Department of Health, if a judge deems it “necessary and appropriate.”
In fact, this bill would give judges the power to cut off a person’s access to any prescription medication, suggesting judges know what’s best for someone’s health better than the person’s own doctor.
Rather than taking a public health approach to substance use disorder or increasing relief for those below evidenced-based thresholds, the gutted version of the bill instead focuses on increasing penalties for the few whose conduct is above arbitrary thresholds.
Finally, this flawed bill places debt collection over safety by allowing a person on probation indefinitely if they haven’t paid the entire restitution they owe, effectively sentencing those who are living in poverty to what could amount to never-ending probation.
Barring further changes to the bill, state lawmakers should roundly reject this poisoned version of HB 1555 and get back to work on a meaningful reform bill worthy of Governor Wolf’s signature.
We appreciate the value of good faith, bipartisan compromise. But what good is it if nothing is actually achieved? Mass incarceration and over-supervision make us less safe and keep families and communities across our Commonwealth from reaching their potential every day.
Claiming progress in name only while people suffer from bad policies and legislation is self-serving politics that causes people to lose faith in democracy. Compromise that sells out the progress people demand will not do — it sets us further back.
The Delozier/Harris bill, as amended, is not criminal justice reform. Because the amended bill would actually worsen the conditions of probation in Pennsylvania, we urge members of the House to reject this bill in its new form and get back to work on real probation reform in the Commonwealth.
Larry Krasner, a Democrat, is the elected district attorney for Philadelphia County.