‘It’s extremely important’: Senate schedules marathon hearing on probation and parole reform

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.

A bipartisan effort in the state Senate to reform Pennsylvania’s probation and parole laws will get some new insight next week from more than a dozen experts.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, will hold a public hearing on Pennsylvania’s parole and probation systems, which supervise offenders and newly released prisoners living in their communities.

The committee will hear from more than a dozen stakeholders in the probation and parole debate, including county district attorneys, criminal defense lawyers, and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Reform Alliance, which is chaired by Philadelphia rapper and probation and parole reform advocate Meek Mill.

Representatives from state Department of Corrections, the Office of the Victim Advocate, and the Sentencing Commission will also offer testimony.

“What you’ll see are people on all different sides of the issue,” said Mike Cortez, a top aide to Baker and the Judiciary Committee.

Cortez acknowledged it’s an unusual time to devote so much attention to a single policy matter, given that leaders in the House and Senate are scrambling to finish Pennsylvania’s 2019-20 budget by the end of June.

But he also said the Judiciary Committee is eager to hear solutions to fix Pennsylvania’s expensive and punitive supervision programs.

“It’s incredibly important,” Cortez said. “The hearing will be a sounding board to figure out what we can do, what we can’t do, and if there are ways we can move bills forward.”

Probation and parole laws are meant to cut costs and reduce prison populations. But a newly released report suggests the opposite is true in many states.

Pennsylvania spent $100 million to arrest and incarcerate people who committed technical violations of parole — infractions like missing a meeting with a probation officer or failing a drug test — according to a report from the Council on State Governments, a non-partisan public policy research institute.

The state spends an additional $200 million incarcerating people who commit new crimes while on probation or parole.

As a result, more than half of the people sent to prison in Pennsylvania are brought in because of a technical violation of parole. Some may not stay for long, but on a given day, 7,000 of the state’s inmates are incarcerated for parole violations.

The high social and economic costs of probation and parole have put the programs in the crosshairs of criminal justice reformers in the state Senate, which recently passed a package of bills aimed at cutting corrections costs and reinvesting savings in public safety initiatives.

A comprehensive probation and parole reform bill could be next on their agenda, Cortez said.

The Judiciary Committee will also discuss a bill from Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington , and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, that would minimize technical violations and cap probation terms.

Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that puts no limit on how long someone can serve probation.

Correction: This article was updated to correct the days of the Senate committee hearings. They will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, not Monday and Tuesday.

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