Lawmakers, rapper Meek Mill urge state probation law changes

Rapper Meek Mill is seen during REFORM Alliance campaign for criminal justice reform to introduce House Bill 1925 on April 2, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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State lawmakers, criminal justice reform advocates and rapper Meek Mill joined forces Tuesday to push for an overhaul of Pennsylvania’s probation system.

House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris said at an event in downtown Philadelphia that he will soon introduce a bill designed to put fewer people on parole and for shorter periods of time.

Mill became a symbol for those who want to change the probation system because he received a 2- to 4-year prison term for probation violations in a decade-old gun and drug possession case.

Mill, who spent months in prison before a court ordered his release, recounted his experience with the system and said improvements to the law would prevent others from repeating what he went through.

Harris, who represents a Philadelphia district, wants to end the practice of extending probation when fines and fees aren’t paid, give defendants credit for good behavior and cut time off supervision for completing educational or vocational classes.

He also wants to prevent putting probationers back behind bars if they test positive for the use of marijuana, associate with people who have a criminal history or travel outside their jurisdiction.

Harris argues courts should not be issuing consecutive sentences of probation or extending probation or parole over nonpayment of fines and costs alone.

“We need to incentivize people who are doing the right thing,” Harris said after the event. “And when we know they’re doing the right thing, we need to shorten their time.”

The proposed changes would affect county and state probation and parole.

Rep. Sheryl Delozier, a Republican from the Harrisburg suburbs who was part of the announcement in Philadelphia Tuesday, said there ought to be a balance between supporting police and giving people who have served their time the ability to return as productive members of society.

“But having too many people on probation would prevent our county probation agents from focusing on those who need supervision the most,” Delozier said. “For those who do violate their probation, going back to jail should not be the automatic response.”

Harris said he was encouraged by conversations with Republicans and law enforcement about proposed changes. He expects to have legislation drafted in the coming weeks.

“The fact that we’re all at the table discussing this issue is a sign that everybody is committed to getting this done,” Harris said.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said reforms of probation and parole are high on the priority list of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, “and we welcome any legislative assistance to help us continue to improve outcomes for those in supervision and public safety ultimately.”

A similar proposal to reform probation has been introduced as a bill in the state Senate.

State lawmakers last year passed legislation that automatically seals lower-level, nonviolent crimes from public review after 10 years. The “clean slate” legislation also seals records of arrests that did not result in convictions. The convictions are not expunged, and records of them are still available to police, courts and prosecutors.

Access to all summary convictions that are 10 years old are restricted, as long as the defendant has fulfilled court-ordered obligations.

Pennsylvania has also recently stopped suspending drivers’ licenses for those convicted of drug offenses unrelated to driving, and expanded the use of DNA evidence for those already convicted.