Supporters, Opponents Discuss Probation Reform Bill Moving Through Pa. Capitol
HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - Comprehensive probation reform legislation passed the Pennsylvania Senate with bipartisan support in June.
Supporters call Senate Bill 838 a game changer for the state’s probation system. However, some are opposed to the measure which has broad support from lawmakers, business leaders, conservative and liberal think tanks, among others.
Both supporters and opponents of SB 838 agree: probation in Pennsylvania needs reform, now.
“Everyone acknowledges that there's a need for reform, and the need is now. This is something that really impacts people's lives. And we'll be able to allow them to get back to life quicker and be able to readjust,” said Cody Bright, the northeast regional director for REFORM Alliance.
Bright and REFORM have been pushing for comprehensive probation reform for years. He and his team say SB 838 is the best path to provide concrete results and real change.
Supporters, like REFORM, say the bill has several positive components as currently written. For example, limiting when someone can be sent to prison for a technical violation and how long they can be incarcerated for it, extending pathways to early termination, incentivizing activities to reduce recidivism and individualizing probation conditions.
But opponents say there are parts to the bill that would do more harm than good.
“Probation in Pennsylvania is in desperate need of reform,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t fix the problems. SB 838 fails to cap the periods of years that people can be sentenced to and kept on probation. While it creates a presumption against jail time for violations of probation rules, the exceptions are so broad that it renders the presumption meaningless,” she added.
Tanisha Long, a community organizer for the Abolitionist Law Center, also believes the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“I think what happens is people are so eager to do something that sometimes you end up making a lot of sacrifices in negotiations where you end up so far removed from your original goal that it's just not workable,” she added.
In addition to Long and the ACLU, public defenders expressed concern as well.
“The pieces of this bill, we think, don't pass constitutional muster, meaning that the whole thing needs to be readdressed,” said Sara Jacobson, executive director at the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania.
Jacobson says the bill would exclude defense counsel from probation review proceedings.
“The way the bill is written, probation officers can make a recommendation to add new terms to probation without notice to counsel, and without a hearing. We think that's bad policy, we think it's probably unconstitutional,” said Jacobson.
“As noted by the opposition itself, the defendant has a constitutional right to have counsel present at proceedings when probation is extended or additional conditions are imposed and SB 838 makes no changes to this guarantee, which remains in full force,” said Erin Haney, the Senior Director of Policy and Law at REFORM, who supports the bill.
Furthermore, “a probation review conference is a conference to early terminate probation, not a conference to increase probation or extend beyond the original sentence and that seems to be getting lost here,” Haney added.
REFORM says the bill is the product of five years worth of advocacy and mobilization to deliver for the over 100,000 Pennsylvanians on probation. With the support of more than 125 organizations, Bright says the legislation speaks for itself.
“We want to make this work for everyone,” said Bright. “The really important thing about this bill is that there're different groups that are supporting it. It's not just attorneys, it's just not civil rights groups, it’s a group of faith leaders, business leaders, business associations. We have conservative groups, we have moderate groups, we have left-leaning groups. That's what the beautiful thing about this bill is,” Bright added. “It's diverse, it's different- we all want the same end goal, and that's reform and to pass SB 838.”
Instead of a vote in the House yesterday, SB 838 was re-referred to the House Appropriations Committee. Some lawmakers believe the bill got tied up in active negotiations with a separate criminal justice reform bill.