Today, the Pennsylvania General Assembly moved two key criminal justice reform bills forward. One is aimed at improving Pennsylvania’s onerous probation system, the other at limiting the excessive burdens a criminal record puts on returning citizens who are trying to find work.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 14 as amended (Sens. Williams and Bartolotta), which aims to reduce the number of Pennsylvanians being unnecessarily sent to prison.
Pennsylvania has the fifth largest probation population in the nation. Strict technical violation conditions and excessively long sentences often set up probationers to fail instead of equipping them to live crime-free lives. Consider Geneia Rice’s experience during her 10-year probation term.
“I have been at the county office 84 times. Sometimes I wait hours before being seen, making me late to work. I’ve been denied jobs for still being on probation even though my record is from seven years ago! I have three children all under the age of five. So it is already a hassle for me to provide sufficiently for them. And I have over $9,000 left in fines.”
These needless roadblocks mean that probation violations account for at least 10% of all prison admissions in the state.
Senate Bill 14 begins to reverse this harmful trend by:
- Incentivizing and rewarding individuals who demonstrate they want to succeed by reducing their probation sentences for meeting all conditions, working, and/or pursuing education and training.
- Joining the majority of states in encouraging limits on probation terms to three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies through mandatory probation termination hearings. Shortening probation terms allows agencies to concentrate resources early on, when individuals are at greatest risk of offending.
While improvements can still be made to this bill, it is a strong step in the right direction to prioritize resources for those most needing supervision. It will improve public safety and reduce the physical, emotional, and financial costs to those inside and outside the criminal justice system.
Occupational Licensing Reform
Similarly, the state House passed Senate Bill 637 (Sens. DiSanto and Schwank), which will provide individuals with criminal records a fairer path toward employment. Once concurred in the Senate, Governor Wolf is expected to sign this legislation having voiced support for similar reforms.
A criminal record already poses a significant hurdle to employment, despite a job being a key deterrent of repeating crime. Yet, vague state rules often unjustly keep Pennsylvanians from receiving licenses to work in certain occupations—even when they have completed education requirements and paid every fee. This harms economically disadvantaged citizens without any increased safety in our workplaces or communities.
Courtney Haveman and Amanda Spillane are great examples of people being arbitrarily barred from employment. Both overcame addiction and worked hard to earn a license, but were denied by the state for not upholding so-called “good moral character.”
SB 637 creates clear, accessible standards and best practices for licensing boards. Notably, it only allows for the consideration of past criminal conduct that is directly related to the occupation or that poses a serious public risk. It further grants restricted licenses to people who received occupational training while in state correctional institutions.
People succeed when they can honestly work. Our laws should incentivize, not make it more difficult, to remain out of prison.
These two bills will help make our justice system fairer at every step of the process. They build on past criminal justice reforms that have caused fewer people to be sent to prison while making Pennsylvania safer. And they are among the commonsense solutions that are widely supported by voters across the political spectrum. Two recent surveys show between 67% and 75% of Pennsylvanians support probation reform, and 80% support occupational licensing reform for those with criminal records.
During a time of intense division, it is more important than ever to coalesce around reforms that promote equality and opportunity. Lawmakers should proudly send these bills to the governor’s desk.