Unanimous Senate Vote Advances Criminal Justice Reform

Commonwealth Foundation

By Bob Dick

The state Senate embraced criminal justice reform this week by unanimously passing three pieces of legislation comprising the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) II reforms.

The first slate of JRI reforms, passed in 2012, reduced Pennsylvania’s prison population and saved tens of millions of dollars in additional costs. The Senate bills now under consideration in the House would build on these successes by redesigning the criminal justice system to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

Senator Stewart Greenleaf, one of Pennsylvania’s leaders on criminal justice reform, is the primary sponsor of all three bills. Here’s a description of each:

Senate Bill 1071: This legislation authorizes automatic parole for people serving a minimum sentence of two years or fewer. Currently, people serving these sentences can be held up to five and a half months past their minimum sentence, raising costs for taxpayers while doing nothing to protect the public. SB 1071 also streamlines the process for placing a person in drug treatment, which is more effective and less expensive than incarceration. And it provides new authority for an officer to utilize swift, certain, and fair punishments for people who commit minor parole violations. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, these reforms would reduce the prison population by 696 people and save approximately $48.3 million.

Senate Bill 1070: This legislation establishes the County Adult Probation and Parole Advisory Committee to advise on best probation practices. Considering Pennsylvania’s supervised population is one of the largest in the country, a review of parole processes is desperately needed. The money saved from SB 1071’s reforms would be reinvested to study and implement evidence-based probation practices. The legislation also requires annual reports on the effectiveness of grants approved for counties to manage their supervised populations.

Senate Bill 1072: This bill shifts the burden of notifying a victim of his or her rights from a law enforcement agency to an individual officer. It also adds duties for a prosecutor who must notify the Office of Victim Advocate on behalf of a victim. Additionally, the bill expands eligibility requirements for victim compensation. However, according to the bill’s fiscal note, the changes may increase claims, which could make the newly created victims compensation fund unsustainable in future years. Policymakers can ensure money is available to pay these claims by allowing offenders to pay their debts off through work, either inside or outside of prison.
Taken together, this legislative package will continue Pennsylvania’s recent tradition of enacting meaningful criminal justice reforms designed to improve public safety, help people improve their lives, and reduce costs for taxpayers.