Changes to landmark Senate bill overhauling Pa.’s probation system costs it support among criminal justice reformers

Senators Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, announce their probation and parole reform bill in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 28.
Senators Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, announce their probation and parole reform bill in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 28, 2019.

Capping off nearly two years of negotiations, a bill aimed at overhauling Pennsylvania’s bloated and expensive probation system cleared a key committee hurdle Wednesday – but not before lawmakers made significant changes that cost the legislation its support among probation officers and some criminal justice advocates. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill sponsored by Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, that aimed to cut costs and trim prison populations by reducing the amount of time someone can spend under probation and minimizing punishments for those who violate certain terms of their supervision.

Probation is meant to offer people convicted of crimes a chance to avoid prison in exchange for good behavior. But in reality, lawmakers say probation terms are too rigid and sentences are too long, leading many people to prison for relatively minor rule violations.

“Probation is supposed to be a pathway out of the criminal justice system,” Bartolotta said Wednesday. “But we have a probation to prison revolving door.”

The bill had the support of a broad coalition of advocacy groups when it was introduced last year. The conservative Commonwealth Foundation reaffirmed its support for the legislation it in an emailed statement Wednesday, calling it a “strong step in the right direction to prioritize resources for those most needing supervision.”

But others say the amendment introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, adds unnecessary conditions and regulations to a system that’s already fraught with tripwires. 

“I just don’t see this solving any of the initial intentions of the reform,” said Helene Placey, director of the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania. “It just adds more layers and requirements.”

The amendment Baker introduced Wednesday creates new conditions under which someone can have their probation sentence revoked and face incarceration. It also requires probationers to appear for mandatory review hearings before judges before having their probation sentences terminated. 

Baker said the amendment would bolster public trust in the probation process and ensure that people who pose a threat to public safety don’t get discharged from state supervision too soon. 

But Placey said the new conditions will do little except strain the state’s overburdened court system, and could keep people under supervision longer than necessary. 

Placey said that most offenders who violate the terms of their probation will do it in the first two years of supervision. After that, she said, the risk of violation decreases significantly. 

A better policy to reduce probation caseloads, she said, would be to automatically end probation for anyone who complied with the terms of their supervision for two years, or for half their probation sentence – whichever came first. Requiring a judge to consider such cases in hearings would just prolong sentences and “clog up the courts,” she said. 

Placey added that her association, which represents probation officers from 65 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, wasn’t consulted about the amendment before it got approved by the Judiciary Committee.

Williams acknowledged on Wednesday that the bill “may not be perfect.” But he and Bartolotta said it would still reduce the length of time people spend on probation in Pennsylvania, a state that boasts some of the highest rates of community supervision in the nation.

However, the lawmakers did not offer any estimates for how the proposal would affect the length of probation terms. And the Department of Corrections said Wednesday that it needed to review the amendment to determine how it would affect state prison populations.

Some proponents of reform, including Placey, doubt it will have measurable affects on either count.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which has long championed probation reform efforts, agreed. The group also also dropped its support for the Senate bill once Baker unveiled her amendment.

“This isn’t real reform,” ACLU Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol said Wednesday. “If the problem is that people spend too long on probation, I don’t see a clean, effective way here to [fix] that.”

The ACLU-PA made similar comments in December, after the House Judiciary Committee similarly overhauled a probation reform bill sponsored by Reps. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, and Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland. 

‘This is not a reform bill’: Big changes to probation, sentencing reform legislation draw ire of advocates.