In 2021’s final week of legislative action, state lawmakers came together to pass a bipartisan bill package that looks to overhaul how probation is handled and reduce recidivism in the commonwealth.
Following a 46-4 vote, Senate Bill 913, sponsored by state Senators Lisa Baker, Camera Bartolotta and Anthony Williams, will be sent to the House, where a previous iteration of the legislation failed last year.
The bipartisan bill seeks to provide an opportunity for early release from probation. It would establish a mandatory probation review conference and allow probationers receive review early for achieving certain educational, employment or other goals.
“It's all too easy to politicize criminal justice,” Baker said Wednesday. “It's much harder to conduct a review in reasonable and responsible terms and get past philosophical differences that cannot all be bridged in any one single legislative package.”
Lawmakers were able to come together on the issue and ensure community safety is taken into account. The bills specify that a person on probation can’t be released unilaterally and that victims can have a say in the termination of any sentence. Some see it as a legislative win for cost-effectiveness and criminal justice reform as officials around the country look to limit the probation cycle that often results in people being sent back to prison for minor violations.
“Criminal justice reform does not just improve the lives of those currently in the justice system, it actively improves our society as a whole,” Williams said in a statement. “There is still work to do, but these probation reforms will ensure that Pennsylvanians can once again reenter society as free citizens and continue their contributions to society instead of being stuck in an endless criminal justice system cycle.”
A rarity in Harrisburg, the bill received praise from a variety of progressive and conservative organizations.
Groups including the Americans for Prosperity, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Reform Alliance, the Urban League of Philadelphia, the Department of Corrections and the Office of Victim Advocate showed support for the legislation.
Michael Rubin, co-chair of the Reform Alliance, expressed support for the bill last week.
“Supervision was supposed to provide a pathway out of the criminal justice system. Instead, it has too often proven to be a dead-end, without support, encouragement, or an exit.” Rubin said in an op-ed for PennLive. “In this, the season of goodwill, Pennsylvania should throw open the doors of this closed and punitive system.” Rubin, CEO of Fanatics and co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been a leading voice for the probation and parole reform nonprofit that got its start in the wake of rapper Meek Mill’s probation violation issues.
Ashley Klingensmith, state director of the Americans for Prosperity in Pennsylvania, was also in favor of removing redundancies and making the probation process more efficient.
“[This legislation] will allow individuals to leave the judicial district during their supervision time, shorten the duration of this period which will reduce the risk of technical violations, and set up a process for review conferences where probation can be ended early should all criteria be met,” she said in a statement. “These individuals are Pennsylvanians that made a mistake and should be provided the opportunity to take full advantage of the second chance they’ve rightfully earned.”
The Senate also approved two other probation reforms, Senate Bill 904, which allows probation meetings to be held remotely, and Senate Bill 905, which clarifies the standards considered when making meeting scheduling decisions.