HARRISBURG – Sweeping changes to the state’s probation system became state law on Wednesday.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that is intended to eliminate delays in releasing inmates serving short-term sentences, streamline the process used to direct offenders into drug treatment and reinvest expected savings to better help counties run their probation programs.
The reforms are included in a pair of bills – Senate Bill 500 and Senate Bill 501 – that passed the state House Tuesday and passed the Senate Wednesday.
Senate Bill 500 passed both chambers unanimously. Senate Bill 501 was more controversial due to a move by House lawmakers to insert mandatory minimum sentences for crimes against children.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said that the concerns about the mandatory minimum weren’t enough to “kill the bill,” in part because the mandatory minimums spelled out in the bill are less than judges generally give to defendants. The measure passed the state Senate by a vote of 38-11, with all of the negative votes coming from Democrats.
Senate Bill 501 would require that inmates serving non-violent sentences of less than two years be automatically released when they get to their minimum sentences.
Previously, inmates’ release from prison would often get held up by bureaucratic delays, Gov. Tom Wolf said before signing the measure into law. The measures will “cut red tape” and reduce recidivism by former inmates, the governor said.
Wolf said Wednesday’s bill signing followed years of negotiations.
“I’m proud we’ve finally been able to get it across the finish line,” he said.
The move to more quickly and automatically release non-violent offenders is significant because it does more good to get the ex-cons into probation programs where they can get access to programs to help them reenter the community successfully, “rather than having them twiddling their thumbs in prison,” said Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national organization advocating for these type of criminal justice reforms.
In addition to expediting release of short-term inmates, the legislation will also create new sentencing guidelines, and make it easier for people under probation supervision to get into drug treatment, said state Sen. Thomas Killion, R-Chester, the author of Senate Bill 501.
The legislation is expected to save $45 million a year, money that will be redirected into efforts to help counties run their probation programs, he said.
The state’s strategy for helping counties is spelled out in the companion bill, Senate Bill 500, which will create a statewide advisory committee to provide technical guidance to county probation officials.
The legislation was welcomed by county leaders, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania
“These strong, collaborative efforts in the delivery of enhanced programs and treatment will benefit our communities and families,” Schaefer said.
“Counties look forward to working together with state officials and other partners in achieving the results of this meaningful reform.”
Helping counties run their probation programs is a significant reform that too often gets overlooked because the prison system commands more attention from lawmakers, said Reynolds.
The legislation signed into law on Wednesday were the most closely watched of a package of criminal justice bills debated at the Capitol over the past two weeks.
Other measures attracted debate, but didn’t make it out of the General Assembly, including Senate Bill 502, which would have changed victim notification requirements, and House Bill 1555 – which included a provision allowing judges to bar people from using prescribe medication and medical marijuana while on probation.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that lawmakers recognize that their work on criminal justice reform isn’t complete.