Smart on Crime Reforms in 2017-18

“If it's failed policy, we should have the courage to leave it and let it go.”

This poignant quote from former Senator Stewart Greenleaf encapsulates the essence of recent corrections reform, moving from a “tough on crime” mindset to a “smart on crime” strategy. The renewed focus on prudence will remove dangerous people from the general population and deter future crime.

As a former prosecutor turned state Senator, Greenleaf initially advocated for harsh mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania, but after seeing dramatic increases in incarceration and costs, with no reduction in crime, Greenleaf began to push “smart-on-crime” measures instead.

The first slate of Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) reforms, passed in 2012, reduced Pennsylvania’s prison population and saved tens of millions of dollars in additional costs. Why? It better prepared inmates for life after prison and then streamlined their parole applications.

But right now, further reforms are needed to address high costs, overincarceration, and recidivism rates as high as 60 percent.

In the 2017-18 legislative session, elected officials on both sides of the aisle took a data-focused approach to addressing the soaring costs and high recidivism rates of the state correctional system. These efforts resulted in the passage of two landmark reforms and the advancement of a legislative package known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative II.

Clean Slate: A National Model

On June 28, 2018, Gov. Wolf signed Act 56 (sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Delozier) into law. The measure automatically seals the records of individuals convicted of certain non-violent misdemeanors after 10 years without any additional convictions. Act 56 also provides for the sealing of non-conviction records (those pertaining to arrests, indictments, etc.) to protect one of the bedrock principles of our criminal justice system—the presumption of innocence.

The Washington Post interviewed Rep. Delozier, Gov. Wolf, and DOC Secretary John Wetzel about this first-in-the-nation reform and next steps for the smart-on-crime movement.

Automatic License Suspensions

In another victory for fairness and independence, Act 95 (sponsored by Rep. Rick Saccone) was signed into law on October 24, 2018. The legislation, previously highlighted in our Safe and Smart series, ends the suspension of driver’s licenses for people convicted of non-violent, non-driving offenses.

A lack of transportation harms employment opportunities for former offenders, making reintegrate into society more difficult. Act 95 reduces those barriers, decreasing recidivism.

Justice Reinvestment Initiative II

JRI II consisted of three bills, each sponsored by Senator Greenleaf:

  • SB 1070 created a mechanism to review and advise parole and probation best practices.
  • SB 1071 provided automatic parole for people serving a minimum sentence of two years or fewer.
  • SB 1072 created a victim’s compensation fund.

In total, the package would have reduced the inmate population and saved an estimated $48.3 million over five years.

The package fell short of passage in the state house, but efforts are already underway to revisit these key reforms in 2019. In addition, lawmakers should:

  • Empower Pennsylvanians to reduce their criminal justice debt. Senate Bill 1036 of 2018 takes a defendant’s financial resources into consideration and provides alternative payment options, including payment plans and community service.
  • Reduce barriers to employment after reentry. Automatic occupational licensing bans can keep individuals from employment after prison. The Wolf Administration released a report calling for an end to 13 different occupational licenses and automatic bans.
  • Provide parole eligibility for certain offenders serving harsh sentences. Lawmakers should consider parole for older offenders, who are unlikely to reoffend. Similarly, Sen. Sharif Street introduced Senate Bill 942 in 2018 to allow for the possibility of parole for those serving life sentences after at least 15 years in prison.
  • Facilitate medical and geriatric release. Pennsylvania’s prison population is aging. There were 1,892 geriatric inmates (classified as 55 years of age or older) in 2001, and 6,663 today. Keeping seriously sick, elderly, or terminally ill patients in prison when they pose no threat to the public is unfair and costly.

The state legislature’s recent successes prove that smart criminal justice reforms can be embraced by anyone, regardless of political party.

Click the images below for our other 2017-18 session recap blogs.