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A mix of reform-minded and tough-on-crime justice bills are now law in Pa.

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks on Dec. 13, 2023 after signing the final parts of the year's state budget.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro signed into law more than a dozen changes to Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system Thursday, including updates to the state’s notoriously burdensome probation laws and a long-sought bill expanding a record expungement program.

The divided state House and Senate passed the measures in a rush Wednesday night during a whirlwind session the day before they recessed for the winter.

Lawmakers pushed the bills across the finish line while finalizing the long-stalled state budget. The final mix included both bipartisan measures intended to make the justice system more humane and harsher criminal penalties championed by the legislature's most conservative members.

Gov. Josh Shapiro announced Thursday evening that he had signed all of them. He plans to hold an event at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center Friday afternoon to mark the measures’ passage.

Along with expanding the expungement program, known as Clean Slate, and revamping certain probation rules, the list of measures includes an effort to broaden civil rights for incarcerated women and the creation of a new special prosecutor focused on crimes committed on Philadelphia public transit.

At a press conference Wednesday night, Shapiro celebrated the Clean Slate expansion and the probation rewrite as wins for second chances.

“These common sense steps? Well, it's going to help Pennsylvanians who want to rebuild their lives and meaningfully contribute to their communities, making our justice system more fair, more effective, and more just,” Shapiro said.

The expansion of the state’s “Clean Slate” law, spearheaded by Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia), extends automatic expungement eligibility to certain non-violent felony offenses and shortens the waiting period for misdemeanor and summary offenses.

It also addresses an issue first identified by a PennLive investigation, which found county courthouses were cutting off access to case files that should be public, by warning local officials that they should not seal entire case files just because one portion is eligible for expungement.

The broadened Clean Slate measures enjoyed the support of civil rights and defense groups such as the ACLU of Pennsylvania for helping people shed the stigma of a criminal record in finding employment and housing.

The probation bill is more complicated.

Under the measure, judges must tailor probation terms to individual circumstances, such as employment and child-care responsibilities. It establishes a “presumption against total confinement,” which advocates argue directs judges to avoid re-incarcerating someone for minor violations of probation terms.

The new language also provides a timeline for review conferences, where people on probation can petition for an early end to their court supervision.

It received bipartisan support within the General Assembly and from the national advocacy group REFORM Alliance, which formed after Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill spent nearly 10 years under court supervision before facing a new prison sentence for probation violations that otherwise would not have resulted in prison time.

After the bill passed Wednesday night, Mill issued a statement thanking the legislature: “It’s an honor and a blessing to see this change come to my home state. I am deeply grateful to the lawmakers and advocates for their hard work over many years to get this done. Thank you, truly."

But local civil rights organizations held steadfast in their opposition, arguing the legislation fails to make meaningful improvements to Pennsylvania’s probation system and in some instances worsens the strictures of court-ordered supervision.

Of greatest concern is language allowing judges to keep people on “administrative probation” if they have completed the terms of their supervision but still owe restitution, an amount awarded to a crime victim for damage caused. Under current law, judges can end criminal probation even if a person still owes restitution and instead enforce payment in the civil system.

Under the new language, people who owe restitution must be placed on administrative probation for the remainder of their probation sentence, a new kind of criminal supervision that can still result in a technical violation, extended supervision, or incarceration.

“They want it to look like we're doing something really innovative, while at the same time still, finding ways to keep people under supervision,” said Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“This bill,” she said in an interview, “has to create this convoluted schema in order to look like it's getting people off of probation or terminating people early, except now I have to jump through like a series of intricate hoops.”

Alongside the probation and Clean Slate proposals, Shapiro signed two bills expanding or enhancing sentences for actions that are already crimes: “organized retail theft” and stealing packages. These changes are also opposed by groups like the ACLU because they would expand the state’s already long list of crimes and penalties.

Asked about the legislative mix Wednesday, Shapiro said that it “was a package that was agreed to by both majority leaders.”

The bills saw opposition Wednesday night among some progressive members of the Democratic party, including state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D., Allegheny).

“I understand the purpose,” Kinkead said on the House floor. “The problem is, theft is already illegal.”

Kinkead in November introduced a resolution to examine the crimes code, which has ballooned from 282 offenses in 1972 to more than 1,600 today, according to a recent report from the state ACLU. This increase, the organization argued, has fed mass incarceration.

“The problem is never one bill alone — it is the compound effect that all these bills have together over time,” the report concluded. “It’s mass incarceration by a thousand cuts.”

The bill that most fractured Democrats was a proposal from state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R., Cambria) requiring the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to handle crimes committed on public transit within Philadelphia. Neither Langerholc nor any of the Republican co-sponsors of the bill represent Philadelphia.

“Having a special prosecutor to restore law and order in the SEPTA transit network was absolutely critical to our caucus,” Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) told reporters Wednesday night.

The state attorney general’s office is in the process of reviewing the legislation “in order to fully understand the parameters of the jurisdictional complexities, what the office’s responsibilities will be under the law, and how the funding will occur,” said Brett Hambright, spokesperson for Attorney General Michelle Henry.

It passed 159-44, with every no vote cast by Democrats — including by Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). However, few lawmakers were willing to discuss their opposition publicly.

“We can all agree to disagree on this one, I just disagree,” state Rep. Darisha Parker (D., Philadelphia) told Spotlight PA.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose progressive prosecutorial strategies have made him a target of Republican lawmakers, held a press conference Thursday with state Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) urging Shapiro to veto the bill.

“It is wrong to take away prosecutorial discretion from the voters of Philadelphia,” Street said. “We should get to choose how cases are prosecuted, who exercises that discretion. The citizens of Philadelphia overwhelmingly voted for D.A. Krasner. This bill is unconstitutional.”

Other bills related to the justice system that passed amid the end-of-session rush include:

  • a measure maintaining speed cameras on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt avenue and expanding the program to other parts of the city;

  • one lowering the physical fitness standards required for entry into police training;

  • another requiring fentanyl and xylazine screening to be included in many diagnostic urine tests;

  • and one enumerating rights for incarcerated women and raising reporting standards whenever incarcerated pregnant people are restrained or put in restricted housing.

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