By Elizabeth Randol
The second half of 2020 will be remembered as a time when tens of thousands of people risked their lives during a pandemic to take to the streets to demand an end to police violence and deep, structural reforms to our nation’s broken criminal legal system.
So-called probation “reform” bills —SB14 and HB1555— currently being considered by the Pennsylvania state legislature are a slap in the face to every single person who has taken action in the past months to demand change.
The probation system in Pennsylvania is in dire need of reform, to be sure. The approximately 178,000 people currently on probation account for almost half of all Pennsylvanians in the criminal legal system.
Pennsylvania law gives judges the discretion to set probation terms up to the maximum length of the criminal sentence that a person is accused; most judges in other states are limited in this respect.
Pennsylvania also allows judges to sentence individuals to a probation term even after they have completed their prison sentence or terms of parole. While most other states cap probation terms between two to five years, Pennsylvania remains one of the few that places virtually no limits on probation terms.
Like every element of a criminal legal system rooted in systemic bias, probation impacts Black Pennsylvanians and other Pennsylvanians of color more so than it does white Pennsylvanians.
That’s why the ACLU of Pennsylvania was happy to join a number of other advocates in supporting the initial efforts by a bipartisan group of legislators to bring probation reform to the table and address the probation crisis in the commonwealth.
However, that initial support vanished the moment legislators began to amend the bill, stripping away the core elements of meaningful reform.
The amended probation “reform” bills not only remove caps on probation terms, but go even further by eliminating all the originally proposed opportunities for someone to reduce the length of their probation sentence, allowing indefinite probation to continue in Pennsylvania. Without these and other key pieces of reform that have been amended out of the bill, passage of the House and Senate bills would make our state’s broken probation system worse and continue to accelerate mass incarceration.
Now, as if these amendments gutting a once strong reform bill weren’t offensive enough, an amendment proposed by Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, would divert “savings” from the system — not to fund programs that address the underlying causes of supervision violations, such as access to jobs, education, housing, and community-based health services — but for basic training for police officers.
In other words, in the face of one of the largest, sustained popular movements since the civil rights movement, Pennsylvania legislators are responding with a bill that might fund the police, if this meager bill saves any public dollars at all, and will most certainly further entrench the commonwealth’s broken probation system and mass incarceration crisis.
And they’re calling it “reform.”
Passage of this bill will give the chance for legislators to pat themselves on the back and claim bipartisan victory. But it will also mean that the chance for true, meaningful reform to the state probation system could be gone for the unforeseeable future.
We can’t allow state legislators to squander the chance for real reform. Sadly, should either the House or Senate bill be signed into law, it will amount to little more than a wasted opportunity.
Elizabeth Randol is the legislative director at ACLU of Pennsylvania.