by Ian Pajer-Rogers

Following the path of legislation in the Pennsylvania General Assembly can be a dizzying experience. There are committee votes and amendments and procedural maneuvers and more amendments and odd terms like “third consideration” and “marked calendar.”

And after watching advocates push for probation reform in the commonwealth over the past year, only to see the ACLU of Pennsylvania drop its support for a version of the bill which was amended to actually make our probation system worse, one can understandably be confused by what is going on here.

As they say, this is how the sausage gets made.

In both chambers of the state legislature, there are bills that would reform our broken probation system. House Bill 1555, originally a strong package of reforms, was gutted by committee amendment just before the start of the holiday season. The amended bill would actually take Pennsylvania backwards in terms of reforming probation and has provisions that are unconstitutional. As a result, we pulled our support for HB1555.

You can urge your state representative to oppose HB1555 here.

Senate Bill 14, on the other hand, still includes provisions that would achieve meaningful reform by capping the length of probation terms, codifying terms for early release from supervision, and more. You can contact your state senator and urge them to support SB14 here.

Bold action to address Pennsylvania’s mass incarceration crisis must include lessening the burden of mass supervision on our communities. Pennsylvania not only bears the shameful dishonor of having the highest rate of incarceration in the Northeast, but we also have the second-highest rate of individuals under community supervision (probation and parole) in the entire country. With nearly 300,000 individuals on probation or parole, supervision is the single biggest driver of mass incarceration in the commonwealth. There is an urgent moral obligation to pass probation reform this session.

Most states place reasonable limits on the terms of probation — five years for a felony and three years or less for a misdemeanor. In Pennsylvania, however, probation can last decades. We are one of a small number of states where probationary terms can be stacked to run consecutively. And this comes at great expense to the taxpayers; we spend over $200 million annually on community supervision.

Pennsylvania’s unreasonable and lengthy probation terms and the myriad tripwires of technical violations are counterproductive and contribute to the revolving door between community supervision and incarceration. Long probation terms and the conditions that come with them can feel like walking through quicksand, sinking deeper no matter how hard you try to escape. The consequences of supervision violations, even without committing a new crime, can lead to housing, employment, and family instability. Living under this constant threat of life disruption when simply trying to maintain employment, provide for a family, and be a productive member of society, can be devastating.

As is the case in prisons and jails, probation supervision has a disparate impact on communities that already experience marginalization in myriad ways. Black Pennsylvanians are placed under community supervision at a rate that far exceeds their white counterparts. The fines and fees often associated with probation place an additional barrier on the lives of poor individuals and families. Family and community bonds are essential components of lowering recidivism, yet we hear stories of parents on probation who are unable to attend their child’s sports games or chaperone field trips or who are violated and sent to jail for a missed check-in when childcare was unavailable.

Pennsylvania has the opportunity to alleviate some of these burdens by passing Senate Bill 14. The proposed reforms, as filed, are smart and sensible, and they would align Pennsylvania’s probation practices with the majority of states across the country. We should be supporting people on probation in their efforts to rehabilitate and contribute to their communities while providing incentives for those who successfully comply with reasonable conditions of supervision.

Probation reform not only benefits supervised individuals and their communities but our overworked probation departments and overcrowded correctional facilities as well. Reducing the overwhelming number of people on probation allows probation departments to focus resources on those who are actually in need of supervision and correctional facilities to focus resources on rehabilitation and programs for people who need them.

Probation reform in Pennsylvania is a significant issue with bipartisan support among advocates, legislators, and in our communities. Let’s not pass up our opportunity to enact meaningful reform in 2020.

Ian Pajer-Rogers is a communications strategist for the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Campaign for Smart Justice.