With vote looming Pa. probation officers line up against parts of House reform bill

Advocates for probation reform gather in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

More than a month after lawmakers significantly changed a bill aimed at overhauling Pennsylvania’s extensive probation system, the officers charged with carrying out the law say they oppose a provision giving them more freedom to conduct property searches.

Helene Placey, director of the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania, said she relayed that stance to key lawmakers in a meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday, the same day the House was scheduled to vote on the probation reform bill sponsored by Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia.

Placey said her organization, which represents the 65 county probation offices in Pennsylvania, supports efforts to limit probation sentences and reduce caseloads for county probation officers.

But Placey said her group was troubled by amendments the House Judiciary Committee approved in December, including one that lowers the legal requirements for probation officers to search the property of someone under their supervision.

Current law requires officers to establish “reasonable suspicion” and obtain warrants to conduct property searches.

Placey said it’s not a hard standard for officers to meet, and that it provides sensible checks and balances in the probation system.

When she surveyed her members last week, most of them opposed the amendment that would let officers conduct warrantless searches, she said. 

“You don’t want somebody going rogue and just searching for no reason at all,” Placey told the Capital-Star last week. “We think [the current standard] is a fair threshold.”

Placey said her members also opposed an amendment that requires probation officers to hold mandatory probation review conferences with their clients in front of judges. She told the Capital-Star last week that the provision would strain an already overburdened court system.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations in the country of people living under correctional supervision. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, more than 290,000 adults are on probation or parole, which allows them to serve out their sentences in their community in exchange for good behavior. 

Probation sentences are meant to divert offenders out of prison and cut corrections costs. But critics say Pennsylvania’s system keeps offenders under supervision for far too long, straining its courts and jails and trapping probationers in an interminable cycle of state control.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have made overhauling the system a top priority as crime rates decline across Pennsylvania. Significant reform bills have emerged in the state House and Senate in the last year.

Placey said that probation officers, who are employed in 65 offices across the state’s 67 counties and oversee the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s probation cases, weren’t consulted before the Judiciary Committee significantly altered the House bill in a Dec. 9 meeting in Harrisburg.

If they had been, Placey said, the association of officers would not have recommended that lawmakers authorize them to conduct warrantless searches.

Placey first raised some of her concerns about the amendments in a Dec. 16 email to House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and other lawmakers, where she voiced frustration with an opaque legislative process that she said ignored the expertise of key stakeholders.

“There are so many individuals who claim they want probation reform [who] don’t seem to understand county probation,” Placey wrote in the email.

Placey met with House lawmakers, including Harris, the House Democratic whip, on Tuesday morning to share some of her association’s objections to the bill. She said the lawmakers were “receptive” to her criticisms.

The House bill was scheduled for a floor vote on Tuesday afternoon. But it was delayed at the last minute because lawmakers were still negotiating the details of some amendments, Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said.

“We still haven’t quite reached a deal,” Straub said.