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Pa. Senate probation bill draws ire of advocates

Plus, Shapiro scraps private school voucher program to end budget impasse.

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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

July 6, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Vouchers out, mass shooting, probation concerns, Tioga tiffs, spongy moth fight, building explosion, and the drag royalty of coal country.
The Pennsylvania House passed a $45.5 billion state spending plan Wednesday night after Gov. Josh Shapiro backtracked on his proposal to fund private school vouchers with public money.

The move angered Republicans, who say Shapiro double-crossed them. Shapiro initially promised to fund the private school voucher program to bring conservatives in control of the state Senate to pass a budget with Democratic funding priorities.

Also, this week Min Xian reports further governance issues in the tiny borough that controversially hired Tamir Rice's killer last summer.

And PCLA intern Samuel O'Neal explores why fireworks are likely to remain legal in Pennsylvania despite widespread complaints about their use.

“I will say, my bill that became law last session was a culmination of years and years of negotiations to try and see what we could do.” 

—State Sen. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) on a successful bill that allowed some local regulation of fireworks

» After Shapiro reverses position on school vouchers, Pa. House passes a budget and Senate cries foul
» Pennsylvania’s budget is late. Here’s what you need to know about the impasse.
» Several years after Pennsylvania legalized fireworks, they're probably here to stay

Advocates challenge Senate probation bill

For the third time in five years, a bill intended to rework probation in Pennsylvania has passed the state Senate.

But like previous attempts, this latest effort to fix the state’s outdated probation system has prompted local civil rights advocates to come out against the bill. They argue it does not address pressing issues and could make things worse.

Efforts to overhaul probation kicked off in earnest in 2018 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. 

The case provided a high-profile example of the problems in Pennsylvania's probation system, which can trap people in yearslong cycles of monitoring and incarceration for noncriminal violations like missing a call from a probation officer, failing to take a drug test, or struggling to find court-ordered mental health treatment in a timely manner. 

Mill’s case led to the creation of the national advocacy group REFORM Alliance, which has been the driving force behind the legislation in Pennsylvania.

Legislation introduced in 2019 initially had the support of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. But subsequent negotiations and amendments caused the organization to withdraw support and rally other groups against it. The same thing happened in 2021.

This year, the pattern repeated.

Introduced on June 21, the legislation would remove language that allows judges to set terms of probation to “vindicate the authority of the court.” Instead, it would mandate courts to tailor probation to an individual’s circumstances. It also would set a “presumption against total confinement,” that supporters say would direct judges to keep people out of jail for small infractions.

Under current law, judges can revoke someone’s probation and send them back to jail for almost any reason, said Erin Haney, policy director at REFORM Alliance. “And so what this does is it creates very specific instances when somebody can be incarcerated on a technical violation.”

But groups that defend and advocate for people in probation cases, such as the Defender Association of Philadelphia and the Abolitionist Law Center in Allegheny County, opposed the bill as it moved through committee and out of the state Senate in a matter of days. 

The ACLU of Pennsylvania published a seven-page memo that argues the bill “not only fails to meaningfully reform our broken probation system, it threatens to make probation worse,” and urged lawmakers to vote against it.

The exceptions allowing a judge to send someone back to jail are too broad, the advocacy groups argue, and risk undermining the mandate against incarceration.

The bill also would create a new category of “administrative probation” for people who have met the terms of their probation, but still have to pay outstanding restitution, which is an amount owed to a crime victim for damage caused. The new category intends to lessen the burdensome check-ins with a probation officer that might be attached to a typical sentence. 

But this change raises constitutional concerns, said ACLU Legislative Director Liz Randol, because the U.S. Constitution bars punishment solely on someone’s inability to pay fines, costs or restitution.

The bill is ready for a vote whenever the state House returns to session. If it passes, it must return to the state Senate for another vote before going to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro for final approval.

Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

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This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaMASS SHOOTING: The Inquirer reports that the suspect accused of fatally shooting five people on Monday in Southwest Philly was attempting "to help authorities address the city's gun violence crisis." Kimbrady Carriker was arraigned on five counts of first-degree murder.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaMAIL VOTING: GOP legislators are appealing the Commonwealth Court decision to not throw out Act 77, the state's mail voting law, to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, PennLive reports.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaPENALTY PHASE: Defense lawyers for the convicted Tree of Life gunman say his mental state should preclude him from the death penalty, a punishment Pittsburgh jurors are set to weigh in the ongoing trial. But WESA reports prosecutors and their expert say Bowers' own words and actions undermine his legal team's argument.
    FIVE BLOCKS: NPR reports: "A recent study by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that children within a five-block-radius of a shooting were more likely to end of up in a hospital emergency room in the weeks after the shooting, with symptoms of mental health problems like anxiety and suicidal thoughts."

    PENSION PIVOT: A venture capital firm walked away from a $130 million investment by the embattled Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System pension fund, the state's largest. The Inquirer reports the pivot followed SEC action against the firm and Gov. Shapiro's unusual request to revisit a pivotal PSERS hire.

    » AP: US Sen. Bob Casey has his best ever fundraising quarter

    » LNP: Building explosion in Lancaster County prompts evacuation

    » WESA: How Pennsylvania is battling the invasive spongy moth

    » AP: Drag queens are out and proud in Pa. coal towns

    » O-R: New staffing ratios for nursing homes take effect across Pa.

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