The Pennsylvania Senate has approved bipartisan probation reform designed to offer early release opportunities and incentives for education, employment, vocational and drug treatment programs.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 913, 46-4, on Wednesday in an effort to reduce incarceration as punishment for minor probation violations, such as cross county lines for legitimate reasons or being unable to leave work for probation meetings.
The bill addresses several aspects of probation detainers, including the addition of child support or vocational training as conditions of release, allowances for probationers to leave a court’s jurisdiction, prohibition against jail time for minor probation violations, and specific maximum sentences for technical violations.
SB 913 requires courts to consider incarceration to be served on weekends and nonwork days for first and second violations, and sets minimum timelines for initial probation review conferences of three years for misdemeanors and five years for felony convictions.
The bill also sets standards for probation status reports and orders copies for the defendant, court, commonwealth and any victims registered with the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate. If none object to the status report, the probationer’s review conference is waived.
The bill requires courts to consider probation review conferences six months early if probationers earn a high school diploma, college degree, vocational or occupational license, completes certified career training, or “any other condition approved by the court at the time of sentencing that substantially assists the defendant in leading a law-abiding life or furthers the rehabilitative needs of the defendant” while on probation.
Other changes would cut two months off probation time for every six consecutive months probationers complete without a violation, as well as the same time reduction for those who maintain at least 80 hours of employment or community service per month, though “in no event shall the total reduction in time calculated … exceed six months,” according to the bill.
The legislation also puts restrictions on courts ordering total confinement for probation violations, specifically prohibiting the practice for nonpayment of fines or costs, and allowing only in instances involving sexual or assault crimes, weapons possession, three or more failures to adhere to conditions, threats to public safety, and absconders.
“The reform measures approved by the Senate, take a giant leap forward to implement greater fairness in the process, eliminate excessive incarceration, give individuals a more reliable second chance to get their lives right, and offer taxpayers a break from ever-rising state correctional costs,” said Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, the bill’s sponsor. “I am proud to have worked with reform advocates, judicial and correctional leaders, and legislators seeking to achieve constructive and sustainable reform, and I commend their efforts to come together.”
The approval Wednesday comes a year after the Senate approved a similar bill during the last legislative session that did not gain full approval from the General Assembly. Pennsylvania has more than 300,000 residents on parole or probation, the second-highest supervised population in the nation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It is time Pennsylvania joins the 30 other states that have responsibly addressed probation sentences to ensure minor violations do not become a probation-to-prison revolving door,” Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, said. “Our legislation will accomplish this by addressing the flaws in our probation system which have trapped nonviolent offenders in a cycle of incarceration.”
The Senate also approved related bills Senate Bill 904, which allows remote probation meetings, and Senate Bill 905 to improve scheduling for probation and parole meetings.
All three bills now head to the House for consideration.