This is every way the state Senate plans to reform criminal justice this session

By: - March 16, 2019 7:46 am
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.

In the past decade, an unexpected consensus has emerged among the politicians, policy makers, and activists who inhabit America’s wide political spectrum.

Though their motivations may differ, many agree that America’s era of mass incarceration must come to an end.

Evangelicals say that America’s prison system tears apart families. Civil rights activists say it disproportionately penalizes minorities. Libertarians say it enables government overreach, and fiscal conservatives say it gets a poor return of investment on taxpayer money.

This ideological convergence has trickled down to Pennsylvania, where, over the last decade, lawmakers from both political parties have worked to overhaul punitive criminal justice practices.

The latest effort came in January, when two state senators, a Republican and a Democrat, announced a bill that would overhaul Pennsylvania’s probation laws.

In the weeks since, their colleagues have put forth other proposals aimed at helping Pennsylvania’s aging prison inmates and those serving life sentences. Here’s a rundown of all the criminal justice proposals that have come through the Senate so far this year.

Probation reform

Criminal justice reformers say Pennsylvania can’t reduce prison populations without looking at its probation laws.

That’s what Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, aim to do with their bill that would minimize punishments for technical violations and cap probation terms.

Probation programs are meant to offer people convicted of a crime a chance to avoid prison in exchange for good behavior. In reality, though, lawmakers say the terms of probation are too punitive, and that small, technical violations — such as getting a traffic citation or failing to notify a judge of travel — send too many people to prison.

In 2015, probation violators made up 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s state prison population, Stephen Bloom, a former state representative and current president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg, told Pennsylvania Watchdog.

Sometimes, the sentence a person serves for a violation can be longer than the term served for the initial conviction.

One high profile example involves the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who went to prison in 2008 on charges related to drug and gun possession.

Mill was released from prison after two years and ordered to serve seven years on probation, according to NPR. But in 2017, a judge found he violated terms of his probation by failing to report travel, and for having run-ins with police in Harlem and St. Louis (neither incident led to Mill being charged with a crime.)

Those violations got him a two-to-four-year prison sentence and ignited protests across Philadelphia in his defense.

Bartolotta’s and Williams’ bill would prevent cases like Mill’s from happening again, according to its supporters.

The bill would also cap probation sentences at five years for a felony and three years for a misdemeanor, according to the Morning Call of Allentown. Currently, Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that doesn’t cap probation terms.

Medical parole

Pennsylvania’s prison population isn’t growing, but it is getting older.

And that means that healthcare costs are stressing the state’s corrections budget.

During a budget hearing last month, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the state desperately needs a medical parole program. Two senators, including Lisa Baker, a Luzerne County Republican who chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee, recently answered his call.

Baker and Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, both announced plans this month to introduce bills that would allow elderly inmates who are ill to be released under parole.

A similar proposal is already before the House Judiciary Committee.

Pennsylvania’s population of geriatric inmates, those aged 55 and older, topped 6,400 in 2017, according to a bill introduced this year by Reps. Stephen Kinsey and Danilo Burgos, both Democrats from Philadelphia.

Under current law, incarcerated people approaching the end of their lives can petition a judge for compassionate release, allowing them to spend their final days in a health care or hospice facility.

But the program is so stringent and time-consuming that only a handful of prisoners win such release each year.

That’s why lawmakers want to replace it with medical parole. Their proposals would let the state Board of Probation and Parole grant medical parole to sick, elderly inmates after considering taking into account their age, criminal history, and potential danger to the public.  

As lawmakers work through the proposals in the House and Senate, one point of debate will likely be who qualifies for any new parole program.

The current legislation in the House would only extend medical parole to non-violent offenders. One attorney told the Capital-Star that the bill’s definition of “violent offense” could disqualify many inmates from receiving parole.

A memo Baker published last month, where she describes her bill and asks her colleagues to support it, she doesn’t specify who would be eligible for parole under her bill. Boscola told the Capital-Star last week she isn’t opposed to violent offenders being eligible.

Amendments to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Last year, state senators unanimously passed a slate of amendments to the six-year old Justice Reinvestment Initiative — a landmark criminal justice reform bill from 2012 that sought to reduce prison populations and reinvest the savings in new public safety policies.

The bills were sponsored by former Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the longtime chair of the Judiciary Committee. They had the support of Gov. Tom Wolf, who called them “common sense reforms” that would save taxpayer money.

Since the House didn’t consider the proposals before it adjourned last session, three of those amendments are back this year with new sponsors. They all closely mirror bills that Greenleaf introduced last year.

The first proposal, sponsored by Bartolotta and Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, is designed to improve the communication between law enforcement offices and crime victims. It would also make it easier for victims to get compensated for losses they incur during a crime.

The second reform, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, would revise the sentencing guidelines the Legislature provides to the state Sentencing Commission.

It would also permit the release of “short-sentence” offenders after they serve a minimum of two years in prison, as long as they meet certain behavior standards, and streamline the process for getting parolees into substance abuse programs.

The third bill, sponsored by Baker, would create an advisory committee to help improve county parole boards. County parole boards supervise 86 percent of all probation and parole cases, according to legislation Greenleaf introduced last year. But they lack a centralized agency to guide them on best practices.

Other bills

Most of the proposals in the Senate have bi-partisan support. But that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from floating other, potentially more polarizing criminal justice reforms on their own.

One such bill, from Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, would allow inmates serving life sentences to qualify for parole. Another of his proposals would repeal a mandate, passed in 2010, that requires Pennsylvania to adopt a pre-sentencing risk algorithm.

Street says such algorithms are biased and do not accurately predict someone’s risk of recidivism.

Another pair of bills from a Pittsburgh Democrat would address policing practices.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, plans to introduce a bill requiring local police departments to adopt model use-of-force policies. A second bill he’s drafting would provide community police training and counseling to police departments.

Costa’s district neighbors the East Pittsburgh borough where a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen named Antwon Rose in 2018.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.