Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed two long-awaited pieces of criminal justice legislation into law on December 18, 2019: Senate Bill (SB) 500, which will improve county-run probation systems, and SB 501, which will streamline the process for placing people in substance addiction treatment, lead to new probation sentencing guidelines, and make other improvements to sentencing statutes. Together, these bills are expected to save $48 million in corrections spending by 2023. The policy changes are the result of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).
Why is this legislation needed?
The state launched its Justice Reinvestment efforts in 2015 to determine solutions for system pressures. At the time, the state had the highest rate of incarcerated adults in the Northeast, and there were approximately 50,000 people incarcerated in state prison, costing the state more than $2 billion annually. Significantly contributing to this cost, nearly one-third of prison beds were occupied by people who had violated the conditions of probation or parole. Insufficient county probation resources and inefficient use of parole resources limited the effectiveness of community supervision and exacerbated recidivism.
What does this legislation mean for Pennsylvania residents?
A new advisory committee will improve county-run probation to reduce recidivism. SB 500 forms a probation advisory committee for county-run probation systems across 65 counties. The new committee, within the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, will provide state funding for county-run probation, promote effective supervision approaches, and facilitate data collection and analysis. SB 500 also created a new Justice Reinvestment fund to accumulate and reinvest savings realized from policies in SB 501. The state’s previous Justice Reinvestment fund, stemming from a first round of JRI in 2012, accumulated almost $25 million (out of $96 million in total savings) for reinvestment in priorities such as policing, victim services, and reentry.
More people will receive substance addiction treatment in lieu of incarceration.
SB 501 creates a more efficient process to admit people convicted of nonviolent offenses who have substance addictions into the State Drug Treatment program. This program allows people to serve most of their sentences in treatment centers as opposed to prison, which is less expensive for taxpayers and more effective at reducing recidivism.
More sentencing practices will be evidence based.
Under SB 501, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing will now update the state’s sentencing guidelines to promote reductions in unnecessarily long supervision terms, enabling probation and parole officers to focus their time on people who are at a high risk of reoffending.
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