Governor Tom Wolf signed three bills into law on Wednesday, December 18, that are the second wave of changes under the "Justice Reinvestment Initiative," began in 2012.
One of the bills, introduced by Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne County), creates a "County Adult Probation and Parole Advisory Committee" that is intended to help counties reduce recidivism and save money. The bill also calls for using savings from reduced prison populations to give grants to county probation offices.
Another bill makes changes to the Crime Victims Act, including increasing the statute of limitations for victims to pursue compensation.
The third bill, among many changes, changes the name of the state's "intermediate punishment" program into a "drug treatment" program and simplifies eligibility for the state boot camp that allows offenders to work toward ending their time on supervision.
The House committee on Appropriations estimates that this last bill will reduce the state prison population by 600 inmates, saving $44.9 million over five years.
"What we have done in the state system is reduce the likelihood that individuals who are on probation and parole are sent back to prison for violations, which has had a significant impact on reducing our state prison population," Kerry Richmond, professor of criminal justice at Lycoming College, said of the Justice Reinvestment bills. "However, I believe that the consequence is that our probation and parole systems are now strained, particularly those at the county level."
"Our county is experiencing what many other counties, particularly rural counties, in the state are experiencing and that is large numbers of individuals who cannot seem to successfully complete probation," Richmond said. "There are limited treatment options. As a result, individuals end up violating their probation and ultimately ending up back in prison."
About 40 percent of people in the Lycoming County jail system are there on probation violations, Richmond said.
"One particular aspect of the bills that hasn’t gotten much media attention at all is the simple fact that they went through and changed the wording in the bill from “offender” to “person," Richmond said, "which illustrates that we are moving towards a criminal justice system in the state that is not labeling people and referring to them by their actions, but as people."
Gov. Wolf signed the legislation despite his stated opposition to mandatory minimum sentences. A late amendment by the House to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of sexual and other kinds of crime against children was included in one bill.
Mandatory minimums for many drug and gun crimes in Pennsylvania were overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2015, following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court's Alleyne v. United States decision.
Eleven senators and 29 state representatives voted against the measure including the mandatory minimums.
“These bills are designed to save substantial taxpayer dollars, while still preserving the safety of our citizens,” Sen. Gene Yaw, who voted for all the bills, said in a press release.
The first Justice Reinvestment reforms are generally counted a success, with one state prison shut down since 2012. About 48,000 people are in Pennsylvania prisons right now, while projections in 2012 estimated the state would have over 65,000 people locked up by now. Yet little over half the money earmarked from savings for further Commission on Sentencing reforms has made it to that agency.
Related reading: Pennsylvania Embarks on Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative