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Pennsylvania Senate passes probation reform bill

Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, addresses a news conference on probation and parole reform Jan. 28, 2019, in Harrisburg.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania senators unanimously approved a probation reform bill meant to break the monotonous cycle of re-incarceration caused by onerous restrictions.

Senate Bill 14 provides for early probation termination after three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies. It also rewards academic and employment achievements with “time off” and creates alternatives to incarceration or limits punishment for technical violations — which can range from leaving the state to associating with the wrong person and other “subjective” reasons.

“This legislation will immediately improve the lives of many Pennsylvanians trapped in an inequitable probation system,” said prime sponsor Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. “No single piece of legislation is perfect, such is the democratic art of compromise and negotiation, however the protections and incentives contained in this bill will result in more fair and just community supervision that truly enhances public safety.”

“The system has frequently become a probation-to-prison revolving door that is not making our neighborhoods safer, but separating individuals from their jobs, schools, communities and families,” said fellow co-sponsor Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington. “By matching the punishment to their offense and rewarding good behavior, this legislation moves us towards our ultimate goal of rehabilitating offenders and restoring communities.”

The REFORM Alliance said Pennsylvania ranks third nationwide for residents currently on probation, with more than 178,000 serving in 2018. The state also incarcerates more people for technical violations than for new offenses at a cost of $330 million annually.

Jessica Jackson, REFORM’s chief advocacy officer, applauded the bill’s passage Wednesday as a “major milestone” in criminal justice reform efforts.

“SB 14 is going to transform probation in Pennsylvania as we know it,” she said. “This legislation is going to change the way probation works, taking it from a system that traps people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration to one that gets people the support they need to succeed in their communities.”

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