Probation, parole reforms considered

Judge Kagarise testifies at hearing

During a hearing last month before the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union stated that one in every 34 adults in the state is being supervised through probation and parole.

This percentage is the third-highest in the nation and is 36 percent higher than the national average, according to Elizabeth Randol, the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In terms of people, it adds up to more than 300,000, and, in a fact cited in her testimony, Randol said 7,443 people are incarcerated at any one time because of supervision violations.

She testified the system is costing $334 million annually, including $101 million for technical violations.

Technical violations are those that don’t involve new crimes but are counter to other terms of release, such as not attending regular meetings with a person’s parole or probation officer.

In late June, the Judiciary Committee led by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20th District, presided over two days of hearings to discuss Senate Bill 14, which proposes reforms to the state and county probation and parole systems that would allegedly better serve the public and those on supervision.

Fact-gathering hearing

The hearing, according to Michael Cortez, executive director and counsel for the judiciary committee, represents a start in the effort to put together reform legislation.

Cortez, who was formerly counsel for Sheetz Inc. in Altoona, called it a fact-gathering hearing that included a variety of witnesses representing civil rights groups like the ACLU, victim advocates, representatives of the state’s district attorneys and defense lawyers, prison officials, officers from both state and local parole and probation departments — and judges.

Blair County Judge Wade A. Kagarise was among the judges who testified.

The testimony portrayed a complicated situation that included the fact that while the state’s prison population, parolees and probationers have risen dramatically, violent crime, according to the ACLU statistics, has declined in Pennsylvania by 28 percent between the years 2006 and 2016.

Kagarise, a former prosecutor and judge who presides over many of the county’s criminal cases, joined three other judges in presenting testimony. He and Judge Charles Ehrlich of Philadelphia, President Judge Michael Barrasse of Lackawanna County and President Judge Janine Edwards of Wayne County, outlined their concerns about possible changes to the present system.

“Collectively, it was our goal to express the potential for unintended consequences,” Kagarise said during a recent interview.

For instance, those in favor of reform decry lengthy probation that is revoked for technical or administrative violations, implying such violations are minor in nature.

Yet Kagarise pointed out that technical violations may not be minor even though a new crime has not been committed.

The example used by the judges focused on the release for a child sexual predator that barred him from going to children’s playgrounds.

Under Senate Bill 14, the judge handling that violation would not be able to refer him to prison for more than 30 days, which Kagarise said may not be enough time to stress the seriousness of the infraction.

The judges also were concerned that the bill lacked a precise definition of what was meant by an “administrative (technical) violation.”

Some of the provisions of Senate Bill 14 may lead judges to impose stiffer sentences on perpetrators, Kagarise explained, and when violations occur, land the offender in state prison as opposed to county prison.

However, the judges labeled other aspects of the bill, such as early termination of supervision for probationers who abide by their conditions of release, “as constructive public policies.”

Senate Bill 14

The proposed Senate bill would cap the amount of probation time that a judge could impose at five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors.

Judges would not be able to extend probation for failure to pay fines, costs or restitution if the person is not able to pay.

And, individuals who commit administrative violations could be sentenced to only 30 days. Those who commit new misdemeanors could be returned to prison for a maximum of only 60 days and a judge handling a case in which a new felony had been committed would have to consider alternatives to incarceration.

Senate Bill 14 also would allow an individual who is already serving more than a year behind bars for supervision violations to petition for resentencing.

One of the individuals who testified during the lengthy hearings was Jennifer Storm, the Pennsylvania Victim Advocate, who contended conversations about reform, early release and diversion from prison cannot occur without considering the rights of victims.

“For too long in Pennsylvania, these conversations were held … without the full appreciation, willingness or understanding of the need for inclusion of the crime victim,” she said in her statement before the committee.

She said reform discussions are being held for a litany of reasons, “most of which, quite frankly are driven by cost reductions and budget savings.”

This concept, she said, “does not often sit well with victims.”

She presented a question for the committee to mull: “How do we balance the need for necessary reform with the inherent need for safety, justice and — yes — retribution?”

She urged the committee to put themselves in the shoes of a mother whose son has been brutally murdered, and who is never coming home, while “the person who committed this crime is receiving a bachelor’s degree from Villanova, appearing on national television, attending Super Bowl parties and being celebrated upon release as a celebrity of sorts.”

Ripe for reforms

On the other hand, Janna Moll, the spokeswoman for a relatively new group called the Justice Action Network, stated, “Pennsylvania is ripe for immediate action on probation and community supervision reforms.”

She recommended “swift, clear and proportionate responses to (technical) violations,” helping officers address issues before the become serious. She recommended limiting the use of incarceration as a sanction.

Fran Chardo, the Dauphin County District Attorney, said that probation works “when it is correctly targeted both in terms of length of time and intensity of supervision.”

In her county, probation numbers are lower than in other counties because the county identifies those who can benefit from early termination — those have paid their restitution, not violated terms of probation and do not pose a risk to society.

An assistant public defender in Dauphin County, Christopher Amthor, related a story in which a female parolee and mother lost her job and was arrested at her workplace after her parole officer said she violated probation because she did not meet with him and instead went to work.

He supported Senate Bill 14, indicating it would provide a more rehabilitative form of community supervision while cutting back on the local prison population.

He called the bill “an excellent beginning to reform needed for probation and parole services.”

Kagarise concluded, “I think there are some areas where improvements can be made to the law.”

He specifically focused on early termination of probation or parole as a possible area of improvement. That decision now is with the discretion of the judge.

But, he repeated, there are some provisions in the bill that could result in unintended consequences that would not be in the best interests of justice.

Cortez said the next step will be to review the testimony, and then meet with those who testified to discuss what “best practices” were identified and what new ideas make the most sense.

He said the question then becomes how to put those best practices into action.

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