Explainer: The Significance of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Bills

February 12, 2020

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed two long-awaited pieces of criminal justice legislation that are together expected to save $48 million in state corrections spending by 2023. Both bills focus on system improvements that will reduce recidivism and lower costs to taxpayers.

The policy changes are the result of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which the state embarked on in 2015 with intensive technical support from experts at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. Here’s what you need to know about this critical legislation:

1. Why is this legislation needed?

The state launched its Justice Reinvestment efforts in 2015 to determine solutions for system pressures. At the time, the state had the highest rate of incarcerated adults in the Northeast, and there were approximately 50,000 people incarcerated in state prison, costing the state more than $2 billion annually. Significantly contributing to this cost, nearly one-third of prison beds were occupied by people who had violated the conditions of probation or parole. Insufficient county probation resources and inefficient use of parole resources limited the effectiveness of community supervision and exacerbated recidivism.


These important pieces of legislation will cut red tape, reducing bureaucracy will result in savings of time and money, and we will reinvest those savings into criminal justice programs that reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and better serve victims of crime.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf

2. What does this legislation mean for Pennsylvania residents?

In the long term, Pennsylvania’s criminal justice reforms will make communities safer, save millions, and improve the lives of people. Three immediate changes that will have more immediate and measurable effects include:

A new advisory committee will improve county-run probation to reduce recidivism.
Senate Bill (SB) 500 forms a probation advisory committee for county-run probation systems across 65 counties. The new committee, within the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, will provide state funding for county-run probation, promote effective supervision approaches, and facilitate data collection and analysis. SB 500 also created a new Justice Reinvestment fund to accumulate and reinvest savings realized from policies in SB 501. The state’s previous Justice Reinvestment fund, stemming from a first round of JRI in 2012, accumulated almost $25 million (out of $96 million in total savings) for reinvestment in priorities such as policing, victim services, and reentry.

More people will receive substance addiction treatment in lieu of incarceration.
SB 501 creates a more efficient process to admit people convicted of nonviolent offenses who have substance addictions into the State Drug Treatment program. This program allows people to serve most of their sentences in treatment centers as opposed to prison, which is less expensive for taxpayers and more effective at reducing recidivism.

More sentencing practices will be evidence-based.
Under SB 501, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing will now update the state’s sentencing guidelines to promote reductions in unnecessarily long supervision terms, enabling probation and parole officers to focus their time on people who are at a high risk of reoffending.

3. How was the legislation developed?

Pennsylvania successfully used a JRI approach in 2012 to improve reentry and create the first Justice Reinvestment fund in the state. In 2015, the state embarked on a second round of JRI to build on prior efforts and address new challenges related to costs, supervision, and recidivism with intensive technical assistance from the CSG Justice Center and support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Pennsylvania Justice Reinvestment Working Group—which included stakeholders from all three branches of government—worked with CSG Justice Center staff to review analyses and develop policy options, which are reflected in the legislation.

4. What’s next for Justice Reinvestment in Pennsylvania?

A third piece of Justice Reinvestment legislation—SB 502—remains to be enacted. This bill amends the Crime Victims Act to expand victim compensation eligibility and expenditures and ensure that the victim advocate has the proper authority to provide notifications to victims.

Under current law, probation fees are collected locally; half the money is then sent to the state before being returned to counties a few months later. The proposed legislation (SB 502) would rectify this inefficient process by no longer requiring counties to forward collected probation fees to the state.



Learn more about SB 500 and 501 in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star and read the criminal justice system analysis presentations, which CSG Justice Center staff presented to the Pennsylvania Justice Reinvestment Initiative working group in 2016.


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-ZB-BX-K001 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


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