Senate Advances Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform

Should bureaucratic inefficiencies decide the fate of parole violators? The obvious answer is no. That's just one reason why 38 senators voted in favor of SB 522. The legislation combines the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation of Parole (PBPP) into one new department.

In his 2015 testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Secretary Wetzel explained why consolidation is important:

We often fail our offenders by giving them two sets of rules to follow between two agencies, creating confusion and frustration which often leads to repeat offenses.

Miscommunication between two state agencies should never cause something as serious as a parole violation. One violation could mean the difference between successful reentry into society and returning to prison.

The legislation does have critics. Some state house lawmakers are concerned about the consolidation’s impact on the parole board’s independence. However, as we pointed out in a memo to Gov. Wolf and lawmakers, the board’s independence is protected under SB 522. It will retain decision-making authority on matters of parole and revocation.

Additionally, the DOC created a new website to track key statistics, including parole violation rates. This transparency measure allows the public to track parole violation trends, which will serve as a check on officials who may feel political pressure to reduce the prison population.

The DOC has also proposed an independent audit of parole violation practices—again, to ensure decisions are based on the risk an offender poses to the public, not political considerations.

At least 40 states have already combined their prison and parole systems, including New York and Tennessee—neither of which saw a change in their parole violator admission rates, according the DOC.

Overall, the merger is truly a bi-partisan effort to redesign government. By eliminating redundancies and reducing recidivism, this merger will save taxpayers more than $32 million annually by the fifth year of implementation.

Coupling this merger with reforms recommended by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Working Group will create a leaner criminal justice system that benefits taxpayers and the people working to turn their lives around.