by Michael Coard, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
July 9, 2023
Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Senate voted 45-4 last month to approve a bill, SB838, ostensibly for the purpose of reforming the probation part of the criminal “justice” system.
In the interest of bipartisanship, I’ll grudgingly give those senators credit for their good intentions here. But we all know what road is paved with good intentions.
When I first heard about passage of this bill and read a few newspaper blurbs about it, I was quite pleased. In fact, I even gave a thumbs up on social media to one of those senators. But when I actually read every single sentence in the bill, I wasn’t so pleased.
I’ll explain why below.
But first, allow me to briefly digress to show why there’s such an urgent need for probation reform. Check out Exhibit A, namely Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece Brinkley and what she did to famous rapper Meek Mill- as well as to many poverty-stricken probationers who didn’t have the resources to challenge her unjust rulings.
Even the state Supreme Court, the state Superior Court, two Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Supervising Judges, former Gov. Tom Wolf, former District Attorney/former Mayor Ed Rendell, current Mayor Jim Kenney, current Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Chief of the Philadelphia Defender Association Keisha Hudson have justifiably taken action or spoken out against Brinkley.
Following Meek’s 2007 arrest, 66-year-old Brinkley convicted him in 2009 of seven drug and weapon-related charges, five of which were mere misdemeanors.
She gave him an 11-½ – 23 month county jail sentence followed by three years probation. But he allegedly violated probation in 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. However, they weren’t for killing, robbing, shooting, or otherwise hurting anyone.
They were for technical — minor- purported violations involving motorcycle wheelies, drug use, a petty altercation, and performances at concerts without Brinkley’s permission.
Although what he did might have been wrong, it certainly did not warrant the draconian two-to-four year state prison sentence she imposed in 2017 for those mere technical supposed violations. The idea of sending a nonviolent probation/parole violator to state prison for two-to-four years with convicted murderers, rapists, and armed robbers is outrageous.
Following numerous post-sentence motions and appeals, the state Supreme Court in 2018 overruled Brinkley by granting bail for Meek. Then in 2019, the state Superior Court not only reversed Brinkley’s conviction of Meek as well as her probation/parole violation rulings and ordered a new trial but also completely removed her from the entire case.
Now back to SB 838, which the ACLU of Pennsylvania recently described as “the latest failed attempt by state lawmakers to fix Pennsylvania’s probation system. Rather than improving the practice and helping people stuck on probation, the legislation maintains the ability of courts to extend and stack probation sentences for years with no cap, fails to meaningfully end the practice of jailing people for technical violations, and even creates a new debtors’ probation for people who haven’t and can’t pay their restitution.”
The ACLU explains this “debtors’ probation” concept by adding that “People who … can’t pay their restitution, including to corporations, could be stuck on this debtors’ probation for an unknown period of time.” And it concludes by noting,
“Finally, while the bill includes a presumption against jailing people for violations of probation that don’t rise to the level of a new crime, the exceptions in the bill are so broad that most people who violate those rules, like missing a meeting, could still end up in jail.”
You can find more information about the ACLU’s righteous opposition to this flawed bill here.
While doing research in preparation for this column, I reached out to several local experts in the field of mass incarceration and how to end it.
One of the strongest statements came from Robert Saleem Holbrook, the executive director of Abolitionist Law Center. Not only is he an expert based on his extensive book knowledge and his position as a Lecturer in Law at the University of Penn School of Law, he also has irrefutable street knowledge after having spent over two decades in prison for an offense he was convicted of as a child. Here’s what he said about SB 838,
“What we have in this bill is not probation reform but ‘probation deform.’ Organizations like the Philadelphia Defender Association (which represents the largest number of persons on probation in the entire Commonwealth), the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Amistad Law Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, and dozens of other leading local criminal justice reform groups that do probation work day in and day out oppose the bill.
But our voices were ignored by Democratic and Republican senators. This is what happens when desperate politicians, greedy billionaires, uninformed celebrities, and national [disconnected] reform organizations dictate criminal justice reform policy. The voices of the people actually doing the work locally on the ground and impacted by the work locally on the ground are sidelined.”
You can find more information about the probation reform work of the Abolitionist Law Center on its website.
Although the bipartisanship that went into SB838 is laudable, it’s also misguided. And it needs to get on track.
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