Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, speaks about a bill to overhaul the state’s probation system on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (Screenshot)
Bipartisan legislation reforming Pennsylvania’s probation system passed the Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday, sending the bill to the House where a similar proposal previously died without a vote.
The proposal, authored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, would establish mandatory review conferences, guidelines for sending a nonviolent offender on probation to jail, and incentives for ending probation. The upper chamber voted 46-4 to approve the legislation, also sponsored by Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, who supported the similar bill last session.
“Because so much effort and public examination has been put into these bills, there is confidence that we can strike a balance in overhauling the system, giving greater consideration to effectively bringing individuals back into our society, back into our communities, back into our neighborhoods,” Baker said on the Senate floor.
She added: “Pennsylvania needs a criminal justice system to protect people, but Pennsylvania needs a restorative justice system to respect the rights of those who have served their time.
Pennsylvania is among the states with the highest rate of people under community supervision. The Council of State Governments, a national nonprofit, estimates the commonwealth spends $100 million to house incarcerated people for technical parole violations, such as being late to an appointment or being unable to pay a fine. State law also does not limit the length of probation sentences.
In its current form, written, the bill would establish mandatory probation review conferences after three years for someone who committed a misdemeanor and five years for someone who committed a felony. The legislation implies that probation will end, except for defendants who pose a threat to public safety, have not paid restitution in some circumstances, or have not completed a specific treatment. The bill also eliminates a provision that gave judges broad authority to extend probation.
“Probation is supposed to be a pathway out of the criminal justice system,” Bartolotta said. “Instead, Pennsylvania is adding more and more people to community supervision and keeping them stuck there. The broken system has frequently become a probation-to-prison revolving door that is in desperate need of reform.”
Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, was the only Republican to vote against the legislation. Three Democrats — Sen. Katie Muth, of Montgomery County, and Philadelphia Sens. Nikil Saval and Vincent Hughes also opposed the proposal.
Although Saval said the bill improves the current system by preventing punishments for someone who can’t pay fines or court fees, he expressed concern over how the “well-intentioned” measures could create a “new set of onerous requirements” that mitigate the overall reforms.
Effective change, Saval said, would require hard caps on the length of probation and require automatic termination of terms.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposes the legislation, even with amendments approved earlier this week, arguing that despite the work and negotiations that went into drafting, the proposal adds “complexity to a convoluted system,” the ACLU wrote in a memo circulated before Wednesday’s vote.
But a handful of lawmakers, including Sens. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said the legislation is a step in the right direction.
“This is a reform measure that is truly bipartisan, and [it is] a demonstration of the fact that we can still work together on both sides of the aisle to get meaningful change done,” Santarsiero said.
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