A program that keeps people with addiction out of prison is ‘extremely underused.’ A Senate bill could change that

Sen. Tom Killion, sponsor of Senate Bill 501.
Sen. Tom Killion, sponsor of Senate Bill 501.

A state Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a package of criminal justice reform bills designed to reduce Pennsylvania’s prison population by improving probation, parole, and diversionary sentencing programs.

The bills, which will now advance to the full Senate for a vote, are the second phase of the state’s Justice Reinvention Initiative, a criminal justice reform framework that aims to cut corrections costs and reinvest the savings in community-based public safety policies. The first phase passed in 2012.

The reforms that came before the Senate Judiciary Committee have the full support of the state Department of Corrections, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and the state Commission on Sentencing.

Among them is a proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, that would amend state sentencing guidelines to make it easier for people with addiction to enter State Intermediate Punishment. The diversionary sentencing program lets people convicted of non-violent crimes that were motivated by drug or alcohol addiction serve the majority of their sentences in treatment centers and in their home communities.

Diana Woodside, policy director for the Department of Corrections, told the committee that the program is “extremely underused” but has “extraordinary outcomes.”

Between 2005 and 2006, more than 25,000 inmates in Pennsylvania “appeared eligible” for state intermediate punishment, according to a Corrections department report. But only about a quarter of all them were referred for a program evaluation.

As a result, fewer than 5,600 inmates enrolled in the program from 2005 to 2016. Each participant saved Pennsylvania more than $33,000 in corrections costs. And its graduates had lower re-arrest rates than comparable offenders in the general prison population.

Offenders sentenced to intermediate punishment serve a maximum of 24 months, seven of which are spent in prison. They must also spend time in out-patient treatment and community therapeutic centers before being released into the community, where they’re monitored by Department of Corrections staff.

Under current policy, an inmate can only enter the program if they’re referred by a judge prior to sentencing and pass a Corrections evaluation. Once that evaluation in complete, they’re referred back to a judge for sentencing.

Killion’s proposal would streamline that process. It would require sentencing judges to evaluate all offenders to see if they meet the statutory requirements for the state intermediate punishment program.

Judges would have to note the offender’s eligibility status on their sentencing orders, and all who appear eligible will undergo an enrollment evaluation once they’re in a Corrections facility. Offenders who pass the evaluation will be admitted to the intermediate punishment program as they begin to serve out their sentence.

Woodside said the change “cleans up the process” for placing offenders in the program, and will hopefully lead to higher enrollment.

An amendment the Judiciary Committee approved unanimously on Wednesday, however, would make offenders convicted of certain fentanyl-related drug trafficking charges ineligible.

Mike Cortez, a senior aide to the committee, said the amendment was recommended by stakeholder groups, including the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

That group supports another Senate proposal from Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, that would create mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl-related offenses.

Cortez said that the amendment approved Wednesday is unrelated to Regan’s bill, which has not had a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

Another bill passed Wednesday, sponsored by committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, would create a new advisory committee to provide guidance to county parole boards.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, told senators Wednesday that counties “carry the weight” of the parole and probation system in Pennsylvania. A 2015 report from a legislative committee found that counties supervise 86 percent of all probation and parole cases.

Right now, though, those boards lack a centralized agency to guide them on best practices. Baker’s bill would create an 18-member advisory committee, comprised of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, to advise county officials.

A third proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, is designed to improve the communication between law enforcement offices and crime victims, and to make it easier for victims to get compensated for losses they incur during a crime.

Like Baker’s bill, it was approved unanimously with technical amendments.

The legislation now advances to the full Senate for a vote. The chamber unanimously passed a similar slate of reforms last year, which died when the House failed to vote on them before the end of the legislative session.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has already indicated his support for the bills, calling them “common sense reforms” that would save taxpayer money.

This story was updated on May 2 with more details about the current state intermediate punishment enrollment process. 

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