A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation aimed at reducing the punitive nature of parole and probation in Pennsylvania, which has the second-highest percentage of residents under supervision in the nation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
State Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) said the state’s current system is “outdated” and inefficient.
“As a state, we need to acknowledge that the majority of people on probation and parole are working to reform their lives and become contributing members of their communities again, but the system acts like quicksand — the harder you try to get out the more it pulls you back in,” she said. “This legislation will eliminate many minor, technical violations that entrap people while also giving our probation and parole officers the ability to do their jobs more efficiently.”
The legislation, House Bill 1555, is called the “Smart Probation and Parole Act.” Delozier is the prime sponsor of the bill; other sponsors include House Minority Whip Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), Mike Jones (R-York) and Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny).
It would prevent the court from sentencing a person to consecutive sentences of probation, and extending probation or parole due solely to nonpayment of fines and costs. It would create a system of incentives that rewards good behavior. The bill would also amend probation violations to exclude a positive test for legal medical marijuana or a departure from the jurisdiction of the court without the intent to permanently avoid supervision.
Together, the measures are aimed at reducing the number of repeat offenders who return to prison on technicalities that opponents of he current system of parole and probation say are indicative of flaws in the current system.
Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director, Pennsylvania Prison Society, the nation’s oldest criminal advocacy organization, praised the introduction of HB 1555. Shubik-Richards said the legislation in tandem with Senate Bill 14, which would cap probation at five years for felonies, are examples of “right-sizing and sensible community supervision,” adding that currently “supervision in the commonwealth can become a maze once someone is in it.”
“It can become cumbersome to navigate because often there are just so many agencies to navigate with regard to parole and probation,” Shubik-Richards said. “Anything that that works to support people in the community is a plus. As parole and probation are currently administered it can sometimes serve as an impediment and a trap.”
Pennsylvania has the second-highest percentage of residents on probation or parole in the country. The state’s prison population has increased by approximately 850% over the last 40 years at a cost of $2.4 billion annually to taxpayers. Georgia is the national leader.
The legislation has widespread bipartisan support in the House, as well as bipartisan advocate support, including groups such as REFORM Alliance, The Commonwealth Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, #cut50, Justice Action Network, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
“We are exerting a lot of time, money and law enforcement resources that could be better focused on more egregious offenders,” Jones said. “Keep in mind, we also have a serious labor shortage. That makes moving people from prison to the workforce a win-win situation for everyone.”