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

Rep. Rob Kauffman, GOP chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

A powerful House committee advanced a slate of high-profile criminal justice reform bills on Monday, but not before making substantial changes that led some advocates to withdraw their support for legislation that sought to overhaul Pennsylvania’s probation system.

Among the bills that the House Judiciary Committee approved during an hour-long meeting were ones aimed at reducing the length of probation sentences and increasing enrollment in an effective but underused drug treatment program.

Both items are top priorities for the General Assembly’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that has led a years-long effort to cut costs and reduce prison populations amid a period of falling crime rates.

But advocates met some resistance on Monday when the committee’s Republican leader made significant changes to a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland and Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, that established new limits on probation sentences and minimized the technicalities and rules for people under state supervision. 

The original bill addressed many of the priorities of criminal justice reform advocates, who have long said that the thicket of rules, regulations and intense monitoring in Pennsylvania’s probation system lead many probationers to prison.

But such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which championed the original legislation, said an amendment approved by the Committee on Monday rendered the bill “unrecognizable.”

The ACLU said that language introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin will defeat the bill’s initial purpose and grant unconstitutional powers to probation officers. The amendment, which passed over the dissent of a handful of Democrats, would:

  • Maintain the status quo for probation sentencing, which does not limit the total amount of time that a person can spend under supervision;
  • Allow a judge to decide whether a probationer can use prescription drugs, including medical marijuana;  
  • Require “mandatory probation review conferences,” a new kind of periodic review hearing; 
  • Allow probation officers to search the person and property of someone under their supervision without first establishing reasonable suspicion.

Delozier and Harris framed the changes as a necessary compromise to secure bipartisan backing for the bill. 

Harris appealed to fellow Democrats on Monday by telling them that the bill could be amended once more when it got to the House floor.

“Once this bill has all the fixings, I’m sure folks will be [happier] with it,” Harris said.

But committee members such as Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, took little solace in that possibility. 

“All too often when we talk about making something better on the floor, that doesn’t happen,” Miller said.

The ACLU, which championed Delozier’s original probation reform bill, withdrew its support for the House bill after the committee approved Kauffman’s amendment. 

“This is no longer a reform bill,” the group’s executive director, Reggie Shuford, said in a statement Monday. “It is a danger to civil liberties that will harm people on probation.”

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or FAMM, a national sentencing reform group, called the amendment “disheartening” in an emailed statement on Monday. The group urged lawmakers in the House and Senate to restore the bill to its original form before sending it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Miller was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the amended bill on Monday. The former attorney said he was uneasy about the provision allowing probation officers greater power to search the person and property of probationers under their supervision. 

He also objected to language allowing judges to block probationers from obtaining medical marijuana prescriptions.

Democrats on the committee also objected to amendments Kauffman made to a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware.

The bill, part of a cost-saving package known as Justice Reinvestment 2, aims to make it easier for people with addiction to enter diversionary sentencing programs. It got the approval of the Senate in June. 

But Kaufman’s amendment creates new mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for defendants convicted of sexually assaulting children. 

That cost the bill its support from FAMM, which opposes any legislation creating new mandatory minimum sentences. It also drew criticism from committee Democrats who said that mandatory minimum sentences limit the discretion of judges who dole out sentences and do little to deter criminal behavior. 

“Mandatory minimums are moving us backwards,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, a “no” vote on the amended bill, said.

The vote marked the second time this year that the Judiciary Committee has advanced legislation that includes new mandatory minimum sentences, over objections from Democratic lawmakers and cabinet officials in the Wolf administration.

Under Kauffman’s leadership, the committee voted in September to approve a bill creating new mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenses, including for illegal possession of firearms by felons. 

“Philosophically, I don’t have a problem with mandatory minimums,” Kauffman said. He added, “I don’t know many child rapists who can be rehabilitated so I’d like to keep them behind bars.”