Senate probation reform bill faces pushback from advocates who say they prefer the status quo

‘This bill is so bad, [that] the status quo is better than this bill,’ Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director for Straight Ahead, the Abolition Law Center’s legislative wing, told the Capital-Star

By: - April 27, 2022 5:56 pm

State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, speaks out against SB 913 on the Capitol steps Wednesday, April 27, 2022 (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

Advocates and lawmakers opposed to a Senate probation reform bill gathered on the Capitol steps on Wednesday to call on lawmakers to “vote no” on the proposed legislation, which they say will cause more harm than good. 

The bill, SB 913, which is currently before the House Judiciary Committee after passing the Senate in December, is based on several other pieces of previously introduced legislation.

According to an October 2021 memorandum from the bill’s prime sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairperson Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, the bill was designed to address Pennsylvania’s “probation-to-prison revolving door” problem.

The bill, Baker wrote then, “establishes a mandatory probation review conference for probationers, providing criteria for when they occur, and a presumption that probation will be terminated unless the individual does not qualify. Additionally, the bill will allow for the review conference to occur earlier based on the good conduct of defendants by achieving certain educational, employment, or other goals.”

The bill also creates an entirely new type of probation in Pennsylvania called “administrative probation,” which would allow judges to keep those who owe restitution potentially indefinitely until the restitution is paid in full. 

It would also continue to allow judges to “stack” additional probation sentences and does not allow for automatic probation termination after a probation period ends. 

While the bill may have good intentions, its critics say it does more harm than good to those it was meant to help. 

“This bill is so bad, [that] the status quo is better than this bill,” Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director for Straight Ahead, the Abolition Law Center’s legislative wing, told the Capital-Star. “There’s a couple of provisions that would be helpful, but unfortunately, the harm in it outweighs that.”

Holbrook said that he thinks efforts by lawmakers to appease too many other groups irreparably damaged the bill. 

“This bill started out in 2019, with some very good common sense and practical provisions to actually reform probation,” Holbrook said. “What happened is a case of trying to appease everyone and making something worse; because they needed to appease the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, they needed to appease significant segments within the Republican leadership that wanted to see more punitive measures within probation, and then they had these criminal justice reform activists, so they tried to take pieces that appease all of these groups and put them in one bill.” 

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told the Capital-Star that the ACLU cannot support the bill despite its efforts to advocate for probation reform in the commonwealth. 

“We do not oppose bills unless we believe that the bill will cause more damage than the current system,” Randol said. “ The problem is, the way that the bill was gutted, how it included a lot of language from the DA’s [Pennsylvania District Attorneys] Association, and other stakeholders – turned it into something that we not only don’t think would be providing real reform, but could really risk making material changes to the system that would make it worse than what we are currently dealing with.”

Pennsylvania currently has the second highest percentage of its citizens in probation and parole in the country, according to the ACLU. 

In Philadelphia, 1 in 14 Black people are under supervision, and in Allegheny County, where Black people make up just 13 percent of the population, 42 percent are under supervision, according to the same data. 

Calling the bill “inhumane, cruel, and vicious,” state Rep. Chris Rabb, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said at Wednesday’s rally that he will not support the bill, despite bipartisan support for the measure. 

“I want to be on the record as a ‘hell no’,” Rabb, D-Philadelphia, said of his “no” vote. 

State Rep. Chris Rabb calls probation reform bill SB913 ‘cruel, inhumane’ at Capitol rally

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.