It’s Time to Change the Way Pennsylvania Deals With Probation and Parole

Montgomery County Democratic State Representative Tim Briggs plans to introduce a new bill that would eliminate some of the commonwealth’s most punitive policies and institute state-wide uniformity that more humanely deals with those who run afoul of the law.
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There’s a move afoot to change the way Pennsylvania deals with probation and parole. By any metric, including those of the U.S. Department of Justice, Pennsylvania’s treatment of individuals trying to rebuild their lives is the worst. Since the 2020s began, the number of people under community supervision across the nation has declined. However, Pennsylvania’s numbers have gone up.

In response to decades of demand for change – most recently highlighted by socialite and criminal justice reform advocate Kim Kardashian – Montgomery County State Representative Tim Briggs plans to introduce a new bill that would eliminate some of the commonwealth’s most punitive policies and institute state-wide uniformity that more humanely deals with those who run afoul of the law. 

The last attempt, SB 913, cosponsored by Bucks County State Senator Steve Santarsiero, became unacceptable to advocates after opponents tacked punitive amendments onto the bill that eliminated any substantive reform. The improvements in the bill  were so complicated by amendments that, in the words of the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol, the bill became “a bit of a Frankenstein.”

In a brief statement from the Senator’s office to the Bucks County Beacon, Santarsiero pledged to support Brigg’s proposed reform, if the language remained appropriate to the task.

State House Speaker Joanna McClinton has hoped for progress in this legislative session. She blamed past failures on political tug-of-wars. 

“House Democrats have demonstrated our willingness to consider, debate and act on legislation that was previously tied up in committee when the House was under GOP control,” said Speaker McClinton. “There are several bills already introduced this session in both chambers proposing criminal justice reforms generally and addressing prisoner reentry issues specifically.”

With willing leadership and unified agreement that reform is essential, why is Pennsylvania still ranked last? 

Randol believes not enough people understand probation, or parole, and the purpose they are intended to serve. “Probation is a sentence by a judge, with conditions attached, as an alternative to incarceration,” she said. “Parole is some amount of time at the end of an incarcerated person’s sentence that a parole board allows them to serve back in their community.”

Briggs’s bill would only address probationary sentences which are more complex. Often defendants who protest their innocence are encouraged to plead guilty in exchange for a probationary sentence to avoid the risk of serving jail time if they plead not guilty and lose their case. But those community supervision sentences come with a laundry list of conditions.

The bill would address these probationary sentences. Among other things, the proposed reforms reduce the incidence of incarceration should a person violate the rules of their probation. 

“The whole point of the legislation would be to take those serving in community supervision off the hamster wheel – to prevent the probation to prison trap that occurs when people violate the rules of their sentence but don’t actually break the law,” said Randol.

Bucks County’s Chief Adult Probation Officer Christine Shenk explained that every agency handles things a little differently. 

“There are 65 county probation and parole departments. The other two counties are overseen by state probation,” said Shenk.

Each of those divisions has a different threshold for incarcerating community detainees who violate the rules of their probation. Shenk added that “we don’t violate for missed meetings. But we do for unpaid restitution.” Meaning, in Bucks County if a person struggles with restitution payments – even though as a suspect they plead guilty to avoid incarceration – the person could wind up in jail for years on the technical violation of late or missed payments. 

Unpaid restitution and other rule infractions led to jail time for Jeffrey Rowe. His mom, Pipersville resident Pam Sedia, has demanded change for years. Her son spent nearly 15 years incarcerated or under community supervision in a probation trap that she says never helped him. 

“My son spent twelve years in catholic school. He went to college. But he got involved in drugs. My son was an awesome person. One that had mental health issues or addiction issues but not a criminal. He got trapped in a system that perpetuates itself – wash, rinse, repeat,” said Sedia.

A search of Montgomery and Bucks County dockets show that between 2006 and 2009, Rowe committed a laundry list of offenses beginning with possessing drug paraphernalia and expanding to theft and receiving stolen goods. Sedia explained that on the advice of a lawyer, rather than contesting his charges, her son was encouraged to plead guilty and take a probationary sentence. After that, Rowe spent a decade with a relatively clean slate. But violations of his probation resulted in jail time.

“Jeffery spent years in and out of jail for breaking the rules, not for breaking the law,” said Sedia. “For his initial crime [drug use] he was the only victim.” 

Sedia believes that no one cared if Jeffrey’s mental illness kept him from fulfilling the requirements set forth at his sentencing, 

“He could violate probation if he didn’t have a job. He’d get so nervous trying to find a job, it made it worse,” she added. “Every time they re-violated him, he would go back in [jail] and learn how to manipulate the system. And every time he came out, he was less able to deal with society.”

Sedia, a nurse, watched her son struggle. After a diagnosis of both autism and a treatable mental health disorder, she’d hoped the criminal justice system would recognize that her son lacked the tools to successfully navigate probation.

The last time Rowe had a technical violation of his probation, he got a year in jail. When released, his mom says the prison sent him home without his medications. Desperate for the prescription Adderall he’d been taking in prison, Jeffrey turned to the street. Shortly after release, Jeffrey died of a fentanyl overdose.

“I feel like I failed, now that he’s dead. Every resource I went to failed to help me. Society, the government of Pennsylvania, everyone who makes these decisions failed him. It’s a human tragedy. He still gets bills for $90,000 plus interest for restitution because of how often they violated him. He’s cremated and in the ocean. Maybe they can go find him and get him to pay.” Sedia gasped at her own words, knowing that not paying would’ve been another technical violation putting him back inside.

It’s too late for Sedia and her son. Now she fights for the others trapped in Pennsylvania’s probation turnstile. “I wish there was a place we could build. Instead we build all these prisons. Why don’t we send them [community detainees] to a farm that produces crops, values their contribution, keeps their mind busy and lets them work for their room and food? My son was not a danger to society. He only hurt himself.”

Sedia believes the community’s greatest threat is not from people like her son, but from the Pennsylvania probation system. She says it’s cruel and it’s expensive. And it cost her, her son.

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Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche is a freelance journalist and author. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband. Pat has written nine books on poverty and homelessness.

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