Cumberland County Prison

The Cumberland County Prison in Carlisle, Pa. — AP File Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Even as they complain about the roughly $3 billion a year that the commonwealth spends on prisons, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania lawmakers spent the 2019-20 legislative session passing laws that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer, a new report has found.

The 253-member General Assembly introduced 280 new bills, roughly a fifth of the 1,500 pieces of legislation that get introduced during the two-year legislative session, resulting in 15 new offenses and sub-offenses passed with bipartisan support that imposed 26 new penalties, the research by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania concluded.

Those actions “created more opportunities for police and prosecutors to arrest, fine, and incarcerate people — all in the midst of a deadly pandemic and recession,” the report, which brands the General Assembly a “bipartisan criminal offense factory,” concludes.

Those votes also came “at a time when widespread protests against racist policing and police violence have underscored the need to reduce contact between police and communities and dramatically scale back our current system of mass incarceration,” the report reads. “Ending Pennsylvania’s public policy of mass incarceration begins with the Legislature.”

And if lawmakers were actually enacting laws that broke new ground on crime fighting, that would be one thing. But as the new report makes clear, that’s not the case. When it was first enacted in 1972, the state’s current crimes code included just 282 offenses and sub-offenses, the report reads.

In the intervening four decades, the crimes code has exploded to include more than 1,500 offenses and sub-offenses, according to the ACLU-PA, with the majority of “new” offenses created by the General Assembly already covered by laws that existed in 1972.

And those new laws are disproportionately wielded against people of color, the research found. Lawmakers’ actions also adversely impact women and LGBTQ Pennsylvanians while doing nothing to address the underlying causes of crime.

“As lawmakers increase the scope of criminalized behavior, upgrade offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, adopt mandatory minimum sentences, and implement new sentencing enhancements, sentences grow longer and more punitive,” the report reads “Those convicted of duplicative offenses remain behind bars while these sentences run consecutively.”

As a result, “the threat of such extensive punishment for a single alleged act enables prosecutors to coerce individuals into pleading guilty without a trial — eroding any pretense that our criminal legal system in Pennsylvania is primarily concerned with meting out justice,” the report’s authors conclude.

And once they’re released from prison, formerly incarcerated individuals continue to pay for their crimes in ways that are far less visible, though no less devastating, the report’s authors observe.

“In Pennsylvania, there are 879 collateral consequences for criminal convictions,” according to the report, which further makes clear that those with felony convictions face particularly severe sanctions, since “they can restrict access to government benefits, college financial aid, housing, employment, and prohibit someone from sitting on a jury, or running for public office.”

And every new sanction [makes] “it more difficult for individuals and communities to thrive,” the ACLU-PA notes.

The ACLU’s report highlights two pieces of reform legislation that passed during the 2019-20 session, one of which relaxed professional licensing requirements so that people with prior criminal convictions are not immediately excluded from obtaining a license to, for example, work as a barber, and earn a living. Another bill provides for an expungement of someone’s record if their case ends with a not guilty verdict. In cases where someone receives a pardon, their record is sealed for that offense.

But in the end, if lawmakers want to break the cycle, the report provides some bracingly simple advice.

“The first step is to simply stop introducing and passing legislation that adds new criminal offenses and penalties. In the case of our criminal code, more law still means less justice,” the report’s authors conclude.

John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.

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