General Assembly

Opinion: The probation system failed my son – it’s not too late to save others

Pam Sedia writes that Senate Bill 838 will save lives and save families.

Hilarius Mitedede/Getty Images

Three years ago, just days after he was released from a prison sentence for non-criminal technical violations of his probation, I lost my firstborn son to fentanyl poisoning. Jeffrey had spent his entire adult life in the criminal justice system. Instead of giving him the support and treatment he needed, Pennsylvania's probation system failed him over and over again.

Jeffrey initially became involved in the probation system when he was in college. He was introduced to cocaine by his roommate, which sparked a lifelong struggle with addiction, which was exacerbated by ADHD and undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

From 2011 to 2019, Jeffrey was reincarcerated three times for technical probation violations – non-violent, non-criminal and directly associated with his addiction and mental health disorders – for which he was repeatedly sentenced to lengthy incarceration terms. 

Pennsylvania is one of the only states that allows for these never-ending probation sentences. Plus, justice-involved Pennsylvanians can be tossed back into prison for mundane things like traveling outside the jurisdiction of the court. There are zero guardrails to limit how long someone can be under threat of going back to jail for doing something – like going to the next county for work – that isn’t even actually a criminal act. 

Jeffrey went to jail for the last time in late 2019. During the hearing, Jean Ruttenberg, an expert with 40 years of experience in treating ASD, testified that incarcerating Jeffrey for these technical violations "puts him at great risk." Ruttenberg testified that the proper solution would be to get him intensive treatment to address the underlying cause of his drug addiction. But the court ignored my pleas and Jean’s warning and sentenced him to jail time. By the time he was released, his mental health had severely deteriorated. He was gone within two weeks from fentanyl poisoning after buying laced ADHD medication from a dealer.

Senate Bill 838 recently passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee, and is now awaiting additional votes in the House. It would revamp how Pennsylvania deals with technical violations, ensuring people are not sent to prison for minor violations and limiting the amount of time they can be incarcerated for. It would also help move our probation system from a one-size-fits-none approach toward more individualized conditions that would take people’s unique needs into account.

No one should have Jeffrey’s experience. It’s too late for my son, but it doesn’t have to be this way for someone else’s child. Senate Bill 838 will save their lives and save their families from this pain – but only if our politicians do their job. They’ve considered probation reform session after session; now it’s time to act like our loved ones’ lives depend on it – because they do.

Pam Sedia is a Pipersville, Pennsylvania resident who lost her son Jeffrey to fentanyl poisoning. She now advocates for probation reforms.