GOP state committees alter five Pa. criminal justice bills causing advocates to drop support | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

GOP state committees alter five Pa. criminal justice bills causing advocates to drop support

Currently, Pennsylvania spends nearly $330 million a year on people incarcerated for parole or probation violations, and has the second-highest rate of people on probation and/or parole of any state in the U.S.

Two concurrent bills, House Bill 1555 and Senate Bill 14, were recently introduced in the state legislature with the intent of restructuring the current supervision system structure and freeing up funds to be spent on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. Both bills had bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the REFORM Alliance, a criminal-justice reform advocacy group.

State Rep. Ed Gainey (D-East Liberty) and CNN anchor Van Jones advocated for the bills in Pittsburgh in September. Both were optimistic that they would pass through the Republican-controlled chambers.

However, the bills recently underwent several Republican-sponsored changes, and now some advocates no longer back the bills.

The ACLU dropped its support of HB 1555 after Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) removed certain provisions that would place a limit on how long certain probation terms can last, and allow for certain reforms to be applied retroactively. As proposed, HB 1555 would have limited probation sentences to two years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies.

“This is no longer a reform bill,” ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a statement. “Instead, it is a danger to civil liberties that will harm people on probation. And it includes provisions that are unconstitutional.”

Other changes that were made to the bill include provisions allowing probation officers to conduct “warrantless” searches of the supervisee’s home when convicted of drug trafficking, firearms offenses, or sexual offenses. It would also allow judges to extend the probation of those who fail to pay restitution.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), an original co-sponsor of HB 1555, supports the amendments to the bill, telling WESA they are a necessary compromise to passing the reform bills. Delozier believes it is unlikely these bills will be amended again before coming to a house vote.
Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon) disapproves of Kauffman's changes and sees the altered provisions as key to legitimate probation reform. Miller is also opposed to the newly added amendments to a package of other criminal justice bills called Justice Reinvestment Initiative II. The package of three bills, SB 500, 501, and 502, was set to create a parole advisory committee, expand compensation for victims of crimes, and permit automatic parole for some low-level offenders.

However, Republicans added language that would reinstate mandatory minimums for those convicted of more serious crimes.

Mandatory minimums are shown to disproportionately affect people of color. Kauffman, who supports the amendment, told reporters in Harrisburg he doesn’t think arguments against the practice, including those about race, are relevant.

“I don’t see color. I like to not get into that when I’m talking about public policy issues,” said Kauffman.

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