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How Legislation Meant to Overhaul Probation And Parole In Pennsylvania Strayed From Its Roots

Through a series of maneuvers, state legislators narrowed the ambitious scope of Senate Bill 14.

On Aug. 6, 2019, rapper Meek Mill leaves a Philadelphia courthouse after appearing at a hearing in his case. Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Pennsylvania is home to one of the most restrictive probation and parole systems in the U.S. Probation sentences can be “stacked”: A person convicted of two misdemeanors, for example, can be sentenced to a five-year probation term for each and spend a total of 10 years under supervision. The state’s punitive probation and parole system explains why it has the third-highest proportion of residents under community supervision in the country.  

Rapper and formerly incarcerated activist Meek Mill’s experience with probation in Pennsylvania has drawn substantial media attention.  In 2008, Meek Mill, whose given name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison on drugs and weapons charges followed by an eight-year probation “tail.” Subsequent encounters with correctional control—which included a failed drug test, alleged noncompliance with a court order limiting his travel, and even an arrest in New York City for popping a wheelie in front of a group of fans—repeatedly extended his probation term. 

But Meek Mill’s experience with Pennsylvania’s probation and parole system is not atypical. Statewide, half of felony sentences with these “tails” have probation sentences that last longer than three years. Pennsylvania is an outlier when it comes to such sentences: 33 U.S. states prohibit probation sentences that are more than five years long for most offenses.

In January 2019, state Senator Anthony Williams introduced Senate Bill 14, a probation reform bill that proposed capping probation terms at three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies, eliminating probation “tails,” and automatically removing people from probation after 18 months if they haven’t committed any violations. The original bill was supported by groups including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the REFORM Alliance, Americans for Prosperity Pennsylvania, and FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). 

But a series of amendments removed all of these provisions from the bill. “This bill would not have helped Meek Mill,” ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legislative director, Elizabeth Randol, told The Appeal in a phone call. “There’s nothing in this bill that removes or decreases the amount of time that somebody spends on probation.” Nevertheless, Meek Mill and the REFORM Alliance (co-chaired by the rapper) continue to support the amended version of SB 14. 

The transformation of SB 14 from ambitious reform legislation to its current narrow focus was a long, convoluted process. In May 2019, a separate probation reform bill, House Bill 1555, was filed to the judiciary committee by state Representatives Sheryl DeLozier and Jordan Harris. At the time, the REFORM Alliance claimed credit for HB 1555 in a press release that touted Meek Mill’s support. As originally filed, HB 1555 wasn’t as robust as SB 14, but its provisions included automatic early termination of probation review at two years and caps on long probation sentences. 

The original version of HB 1555 never reached Governor Tom Wolf’s desk. In December, the bill was amended by House Judiciary Committee chairperson Rob Kauffman. In addition to eliminating provisions related to automatic early termination and caps on longer probation terms, the bill added a provision allowing warrantless searches of people on probation for crimes involving weapons, drug trafficking, and sex offenses. DeLozier said the provision was added to appease probation officers, but the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania explicitly opposed the provision. The amended version of HB 1555 ultimately never reached the floor for a final vote, and the provision relating to warrantless searches died with the bill. 

The original version of SB 14 was introduced in January 2019, and sat in committee untouched for a year and a half. On June 24, the original text of SB 14 was replaced by a bill that effectively used the amended version of HB 1555 as a template. Criminal legal reform advocates say that one of its most problematic provisions is a distortion of HB 1555’s “good time credits” framework. In the first version of HB 1555, probationers could reduce their sentences by completing GED courses or vocational training. In the current version of SB 14, completing an educational or vocational program only leads to early eligibility for an “initial probation review conference” at two and a half years for misdemeanor probation terms and four and a half years for felony probation terms.

The amended version passed the Senate on July 15, and the bill needs to be passed by the House before it reaches the governor’s desk.  

Advocates and probation officers told The Appeal that these provisions would complicate efforts to shorten probation sentences at the county level. “[Existing] law says that the court can terminate probation or decrease conditions without a hearing,” said Helene Placey, executive director of the probation and parole officers association. “We think that presumptive early termination is the way to go.” There’s no need to go in front of a judge and have a hearing.” Placey also cited research demonstrating that probation terms longer than one or two years have little positive effect on public safety.  

Placey pointed to an early termination program already underway in York County, which has facilitated early termination for about 400 probationers each year since the effort began in November 2017. In a phone call with The Appeal, the county’s director of probation services, April Billet-Barclay, said the process happens “entirely on paper”: a probation officer sends a request for early termination to the district attorney’s office, who then signs off on the request and sends it to a judge. Billet-Barclay emphasized that mandating judicial hearings as part of the termination process would be burdensome. “It’s really not necessary … if the probationer comes in, you’re throwing more court costs and fines on them, because every time they come before the judge, they get more costs.” Significantly, inability to pay probation fees and other court costs already prevents many probationers from obtaining access to this early termination program. 

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has pointed to other problems with the amended text of SB 14. In a July 15 statement, executive director Reggie Shuford noted that the bill requires probationers to pay their restitution in full before their probation term can be terminated, and it facilitates incarceration for technical violations. “The Legislature can no longer get away with gaslighting Pennsylvanians about their attempts at reform,” Shuford’s statement reads. “The reality is that this bill makes probation worse.”