Yesterday, the Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives advanced a bill to reform the state’s probation system. The bill was the result of months of bipartisan work and advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.
Probation reform is long overdue. Often thought of as a more lenient punishment than incarceration, probation — supervision instead of incarceration — often traps people, mostly black and brown, in never-ending sentences by imposing strict conditions that can criminalize poverty, addiction, and mental illness. A recent Inquirer investigation shows that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians are under supervision in any given day. People on probation often find themselves in jail or having their sentences prolonged because of “technical violations,” such as missing a meeting because they could not find child care.
To address the issue of extended probation, H.B. 1555 — a bipartisan effort led by State Reps. Sheryl M. Delozier (R., Cumberland) and Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) — originally capped the period of probation for misdemeanors at two years and five years for felonies. It further prohibited judges from imposing consecutive probation sentences and applied these changes retroactively.
These reforms are no longer included in the bill advanced by the committee.
Instead of caps, the newly amended bill creates a mandatory review process after three years for misdemeanors and five for felonies. According to Harris, after that, there is a “presumption of termination.” Unless a judge can articulate a reason not to terminate supervision, probation ends. That is different from a cap, especially considering that to earn a review, the person under supervision needs to be free of any technical violations for 18 months. Further, any financial restitution must have been paid in full to terminate supervision without regard to ability to pay — which could further trap poor people in prolonged punishment.
The horror stories from the Pennsylvania probation system suggest that the parameters that the bill outlines could bar many people from a presumption of termination.
The most concerning part of the amendment is not what it took out, but what it added. The amended bill allows judges to give probation officers of people convicted gun offenses, sex crimes, and trafficking large amounts of drugs the power to conduct searches without a warrant or reasonable suspicion — a practice that the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania contends would be unconstitutional. Further, the amended bill allows judges to decide on their own volition that as part of the terms of probation, the person can no longer use a prescription medication of any kind. That would include medication for opioid-use disorder, such as methadone and buprenorphine; that is problematic, considering that despite proven efficacy, some judges view these treatments as “replacing one addiction with another.”
There are still good things in the bill. For example, it limits incarceration as a punishment for technical violations. Rep. Harris’ office says that they are already working with partners on an amendment to address concerns.