After five years of hard-fought advocacy by a bipartisan coalition from across the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has finally passed probation reform legislation.
Today, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 838, legislation reforming Pennsylvania’s overly punitive and counterproductive probation system. The bill passed the House 178-25 with strong bipartisan support and was passed by the Senate 48-2. It now heads to Governor Josh Shapiro’s desk to be signed into law.
SB 838 enacts key reforms that will impact more than 300,000 people on probation over the next five years by:
- Limiting when someone can be sent to prison for a technical violation and how long they can be incarcerated for
- Shortening probation terms through new early termination protocols with a presumption of termination at the 2-year mark for misdemeanor probation and 4-year mark for felony probation – or at the halfway point, whichever is sooner
- Creating incentives for people on probation who maintain employment and pursue education or vocational certification
- Moving away from one-size-fits-none probation conditions and ensuring courts take people’s unique risks & needs into consideration
- Taking people’s financial situation and ability to pay fines, fees, and restitution into consideration
The victory is a culmination of nearly five years of advocacy by REFORM Alliance and leaders across the political spectrum in Pennsylvania. In 2017, REFORM Co-Chair Meek Mill was sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for non-criminal technical violations of his probation, after a decade-long battle with the justice system in Pennsylvania. The court’s ruling sent shockwaves across the city of Philadelphia and the nation.
After public outcry and advocacy resulted in Meek’s release from prison, a group of leaders across sports, entertainment, and philanthropy, including Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, Kraft Group CEO and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others, came together to launch REFORM Alliance with a mission of transforming probation and parole for millions of other Americans.
The organization immediately began working on legislation in Pennsylvania but saw multiple proposals stall in previous legislative sessions. Meanwhile, REFORM passed 17 other bills in 11 states, creating pathways for nearly 700,000 people to exit the system.
But today’s passage of SB 838 in Pennsylvania brings REFORM’s story full circle.
“I can’t explain how much this bill means to me,” said REFORM Co-Chair Meek Mill. “My experience on probation reflected millions of other stories that go unheard. So when the world saw my case and the absurdity of sending people to prison for non-criminal technical violations, it sparked a movement. It’s an honor and a blessing to see this change come to my home state. I am deeply grateful to the lawmakers and advocates for their hard work over many years to get this done. Thank you, truly.”
“Meek used his freedom to free others,” said Robert Rooks, CEO of REFORM Alliance. “He has been a constant and courageous champion for the people of Pennsylvania and all Americans. Today’s victory is one I’m proud to share with him and everyone in our coalition who came together to build a safer, stronger, and fairer Pennsylvania. This legislation will bring much needed reforms to Pennsylvania’s probation system, creating pathways to work and stability for more people and strengthening public safety for all. We are grateful to Governor Shapiro for his leadership and commitment to getting this done.”
“When I sat in that courtroom in 2017 and watched a judge sentence Meek to 2-4 years in prison for NOT committing a crime, my eyes were opened to how broken Pennsylvania’s probation system is,” said Michael Rubin, Co-Chair of REFORM Alliance. “We made a promise to not just free Meek but to change the system for millions of others. Probation has become a trapdoor to incarceration and a bureaucratic nightmare. Instead, supervision should redirect people to the services and support that they need to rebuild their lives. That’s exactly what this bill will help do. Thank you, Governor Shapiro, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, especially Senators Lisa Baker, Tony Williams, and Camera Bartolotta, and Representatives Jordan Harris and Sheryl Delozier, for your leadership on this. Now, let’s get this signed into law quickly and make our communities safer and stronger.”
“We’ve been working on this for more than four years, since before REFORM was even founded. This is long overdue and a monumental accomplishment. I want to thank all the lawmakers and coalition members for sticking together and finally passing this bill and bringing urgent relief to communities,” said Jessica Jackson, Chief Advocacy and Operations Officer at REFORM Alliance. “This legislation will completely change the way Pennsylvania deals with probation violations and will prevent people from getting endlessly trapped in the system. It’s going to help shift the system toward a more rehabilitative approach, which will ultimately strengthen public safety. We are so grateful to Governor Shapiro for all his leadership on this!”
Governor Shapiro spoke in support of probation reform during his budget address earlier this year, stating, “It’s long past time to reform our system as a whole and put responsible limits on probation terms. You’ve passed that bill before. And I hope you’ll do it again. Put it on my desk and I’ll sign it.”
SB 838 was championed by a broad coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum that make up the Pennsylvania Safety Coalition. In total, more than 125 groups and 500 Pennsylvanians endorsed the legislation. Community organizations, business leaders, formerly incarcerated people, and hundreds of others endorsed the bill and advocated fiercely for its passage.
“There is no zip code in the Commonwealth that is not negatively affected by the existing probation system,” said Cody Bright, Regional Director at REFORM Alliance and a West Chester, Pennsylvania resident. “That’s why our bipartisan coalition included people from all walks of life and all corners of the Commonwealth. These common sense changes are all about improving public safety, strengthening communities, and helping tens of thousands of people on probation in Pennsylvania get on a path to success. We’re thrilled to see this pass and look forward to Governor Shapiro’s swift signature.”
“Senate Bill 838 is not just legislation, it’s the start of a transformation,” said Ms. Tonie Willis, founder of Ardella’s House in Philadelphia. “At Ardella’s House, we see every day how the existing system can trip women up and make it harder to rebuild their lives. This bill is going to change that. It’s going to make the system fairer and help people get back on track. That’s why we’ve been fighting for it since the beginning. I’m proud of our coalition and grateful to the lawmakers who finally got this done. Governor Shapiro should sign this into law yesterday!”
“This legislation is both smart-on-crime and soft-on-taxpayers,” said Emily Greene, Deputy State Director at Americans for Prosperity – PA. “It provides incentives for deserving individuals to earn reduced probation terms, which come into effect only after they meet clear criteria and surpass the point of their probation when they’re at highest risk for re-offense. It’s crucial that our criminal justice system better prepares people for success in the community and Senate Bill 838 is a significant step toward that goal.”
“SB 838 will shift the focus from solely supervising, monitoring, and punishing people on probation to actually getting them the support they need to repair and rebuild their lives.” said Terri Minor Spencer, Executive Director of West End P.O.W.E.R., located in Pittsburgh. “I especially appreciate the incentives for employment, education and vocational certification because those are critical tools to help people in the justice system succeed in life. I know when Governor Shapiro signs this bill into law, it’s going to improve public safety and create better outcomes for communities. I hope he moves quickly!”
Over the years, hundreds of people shared stories with REFORM Alliance about Pennsylvania’s broken probation system:
“Those stories not only informed the provisions in SB 838,” said Erin Haney, Senior Director of Policy and Law at REFORM Alliance, “they helped us win over lawmakers, and they drove my personal commitment to ensuring this bill did as much good for as many people as possible.”
“My son was stuck in the justice system for nearly 20 years because probation cycled him in and out of prisons for non-criminal technical violations instead of helping him deal with his mental health and substance abuse issues,” said Pam Sedia, a member of the Pennsylvania Safety Coalition and a Bucks County resident. Pam’s son Jeffrey died of accidental fentanyl poisoning shortly after he was released from a seven month prison sentence for a technical violation. Pam shared her family’s story in an effort to convince lawmakers to advance SB 838. “This is going to help ensure no family will go through the pain we endured and it is going to save lives.”
REFORM Alliance aims to transform probation and parole by changing laws, systems and culture to create real pathways to work and wellbeing.
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