HARRISBURG — An ambitious revamp to the state’s probation system is moving in the state House over the objections of some Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Opponents object to several changes to the bill, including a provision that would allow judges to bar medical marijuana patients from using the drug while on probation.
House Bill 1555 would bar judges from jailing people from technical violations of their probation unless those violations also involved committing another crime.
The original bill also included limits on how long probation sentences can last, the chance for people to end their sentences early if they do not have any violations and retroactivity to allow the reforms to affect people who are currently on probation, according to the ACLU.
Changes added to the bill in the House judiciary committee include the measure to allow judges to bar people from using prescription drugs and medical marijuana, one that would allow probation officers to conduct searches of people under supervision without a warrant, and one that would allow judges to jail offenders for not paying restitution, according the ACLU, which announced it’s dropping its support for the legislation because of the changes.
“The committee took an effective, much-needed reform bill and made it unrecognizable,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania.
State Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from Cumberland County, said the changes were made to come up with a compromise that would gain support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Pennsylvania has the second-highest percentage of citizens on probation or parole in the country and has seen its prison population increase by approximately 850 percent over the past 40 years at a cost of $2.4 billion per year to taxpayers, Delozier said when the bill was originally unveiled.
A recent study of information from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections showed nearly one-third of prison beds were occupied by people who violated terms of their probation or parole.
Delozier and state Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia, were two main sponsors of the original bill.
Harris said the measure “will help hundreds of thousands of people in Pennsylvania.”
But other Democrats agreed with the ACLU and said the changes weakened the legislation too much.
Democrat state Rep. Dan Miller of Allegheny County said he has little confidence that lawmakers will be able to make sufficient improvements to the legislation by amending it on the floor.
The move to allow judges to bar people from using prescription drugs if they are on probation would be giving the courts “an amazing amount of power,” he said.
The ACLU still supports a companion bill in the state Senate that would propose similar reforms to the probation system without including the changes made in the House committee on Monday.
The criminal justice reform group, FAMM, based in Washington, D.C., also blasted the changes made Monday.
Common sense probation reform can’t wait,” FAMM’s Pennsylvania State Policy Director Celeste Trusty said. “We urge the House and Senate to restore HB 1555 to its original terms and make Pennsylvania’s probation system one that helps people succeed, instead of trapping them in a cycle of failure.”
House Bill 1555 now heads for a vote before the full chamber, which is expected to happen next week, according to the ACLU.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.