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‘Punishment should not be endless.’ Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf urges lawmakers to reform probation.

Counting jail, prison, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania now has the nation’s second-highest rate of people under correctional control. Probation and parole account for three-quarters of that — a phenomenon critics of mass incarceration call “mass supervision.”

Joseph Kamara looks after his sister, Jolina Doue, in front of their Northeast Philadelphia home earlier this month. Kamara is on probation for two years, and meets regularly with his probation officer.
Joseph Kamara looks after his sister, Jolina Doue, in front of their Northeast Philadelphia home earlier this month. Kamara is on probation for two years, and meets regularly with his probation officer.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

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 has 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 news 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 and Monday’s news conference marked his most public push 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, and is 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 the Philadelphia 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 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 news 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 Hardy Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Washington County Republican, have sponsored a Senate bill.

Harris said the probation system is broken and “it’s creating broken people.”

“Probation in Pennsylvania is the quicksand of the criminal justice system,” Harris said, noting that it’s so difficult to get out of it.

Williams said those on probation face a conundrum of having to maintain a job while having regular appointments with probation officers in the middle of the day, potentially leading to problems at work.

“This is not going to make Pennsylvania less safe,” Williams said of probation reform. “It will make Pennsylvania more sane.”

Groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum are pushing for changes in the probation system, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Commonwealth Foundation. Leaders of the Safe Streets and Second Chances Advisory Council joined Wolf and lawmakers at the news conference.

The REFORM Alliance, an organization founded by Mill and billionaire entrepreneur Michael Rubin, partner in the 76ers, is pushing to reform the probation system in Pennsylvania and in other states.

Lawmakers continue negotiating key components of the reform package. Some lawmakers had initially hoped to see legislation sent to the governor before the end of the year. Others have said that with only a limited amount of legislative days remaining, the package may not be done until next year.