Gov. Tom Wolf Urges Lawmakers to Reform PA Probation System
Ron Southwick - November 18, 2019
Gov. Tom Wolf is urging lawmakers to revamp Pennsylvania’s probation system so that people can get a fair chance at improving their lives.
The issue of probation reform has gained growing bipartisan support in the General Assembly. Lawmakers are weighing measures to reduce the length of probation sentences and create incentives that would allow people to shorten their sentences if they stay out of trouble.
At a press conference in the state Capitol Monday, the Democratic governor pushed lawmakers to get a bill to his desk.
“Punishment should fit the crime,” Wolf said Monday. “Punishment should not be endless.”
Wolf joined lawmakers and probation reform advocates at Monday’s event. The governor said he has had productive talks with the Legislature about probation reform. Wolf has been a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform but Monday’s press conference marked his most public push yet to change the probation system.
"Our excessively long sentences and cumbersome rules are causing Pennsylvanians to lose their jobs. Employers are losing much-needed workers, families are losing support systems, and taxpayer money is being wasted on a system that is not improving lives or reducing recidivism,” Wolf said.
Critics have said Pennsylvania’s probation system is too strict, costly and ineffective. More than 180,000 people are in the probation system in Pennsylvania.
Reform advocates say too many people are being sent back to prison for technical violations even if they aren’t committing new crimes. Many people are seeing their probation sentences extended because of technical violations, such as missing an appointment with a probation officer, or because they can’t repay court costs, advocates say.
Pennsylvania spends $100 million annually on technical parole violations, according to the Council of State Governments.
“We need to stop throwing people into jail for minor probation violations,” Wolf said.
The issue of probation reform has gained widespread attention after rapper Meek Mill was sentenced to prison for a violation of his probation in 2017. Following a massive public outcry and social media campaign (#FreeMeek), he was released after five months.
Prosecutors have voiced concerns about some reform proposals. District attorneys have objected to placing hard caps on the length of probation sentences. They’d prefer to see prosecutors and judges craft appropriate sentences.
Increasingly, Republican and Democratic lawmakers say the system needs to be improved. Lawmakers say people on probation shouldn’t run the risk of going back to prison for missing an appointment with a probation officer or crossing county lines for work or a medical appointment.
At his press conference, Wolf indicated a preference for “hard caps.”
“We need to end the practice of forcing Pennsylvanians to spend decades jumping through hoops and institute hard caps on the length of time a person can be on probation,” Wolf said.
State Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Cumberland County Republican, and state Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat, have sponsored a probation reform bill in the state House. State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Washington County Republican, have sponsored a Senate bill.
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