After years of negotiation, cost-savings criminal justice bills head for final approval

Gov. Tom Wolf signs the Clean Slate bill, a landmark criminal justice reform measure, into late in 2018. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

By the end of the week, Gov. Tom Wolf may have on his desk a pair of bills designed to fix two big problems in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the state House approved two of the three bills known collectively as Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2, a reform package that’s been inching its way through the Legislature since 2018. It aims to reduce prison populations and funnel corrections savings into community-based public safety programs. 

The state Senate approved the bills in June. Its members must vote once more to ratify the amendments made by the House Judiciary Committee last week. 

Jenn Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said that vote could take place Wednesday, when the Senate returns to Harrisburg for its final session day of 2019. The bills will then go to the Wolf’s desk for his signature. 

The Wolf administration has championed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative since 2017.

The legislation the House approved Tuesday amends state sentencing guidelines to increase enrollment in a drug treatment program. It also creates Pennsylvania’s first centralized oversight agency for county probation offices.

The bills are expected to reduce spending at the Department of Corrections by $48 million over the next five years.

The bulk of the savings will come from the bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, which simplifies the process for getting drug- and alcohol-addicted offenders into the State Intermediate Punishment program. 

The program allows non-violent offenders to serve the majority of their sentences in treatment centers and in their home communities, rather than in state prison. 

It’s less expensive than incarceration and its graduates have lower re-arrest rates than their counterparts in the general prison population, according to Department of Corrections officials. 

But the “cumbersome” admissions process has led judges and prosecutors to underuse the program for years, said Diana Woodside, the department’s policy analyst. 

That’s poised to change with Killion’s bill, which “takes a lot of the red tape and barriers away,” Woodside told the Capital-Star in November. 

The second bill the House approved Tuesday creates Pennsylvania’s first centralized agency to oversee county probation offices.

Eighty-six percent of the cases in Pennsylvania’s vast community supervision system are under county jurisdiction. But those cases are overseen by 65 different county probation departments and 60 president judges, according to Helene Placey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of County Probation and Parole Officers. 

Placey and others say the patchwork system breeds uneven practices and funding among Pennsylvania’s county probation departments, as each sets its own supervision terms and fees.

The lack of a centralized probation agency also means that it’s hard to study probation trends and outcomes across the Commonwealth, according to Corrections Department researcher  Brett Bucklen.

“It’s really a gaping hole in our system,” Bucklen said. 

Baker’s bill creates an 18-member advisory committee that will distribute grant money to county probation offices and advise them on evidence-based best practices in community supervision. It will also analyze data from county probation departments and prepare annual reports for lawmakers.

House lawmakers are scheduled to vote Wednesday on the third bill in the Justice Reinvestment package. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, expands protections under the state’s Crime Victims Act.