Pennsylvania passes laws to overhaul probation system, allow courts to seal more criminal records

Both bills passed the House and Senate with large majorities Wednesday amid a flurry of end-of-year action.

A view of the Pa. House of Representatives chamber.

File photo: Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives attend a session at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, June 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

More criminal records in Pennsylvania can be sealed from public view and fewer people might be kept on probation or in county jails, under legislation signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro on Thursday.

Both bills passed the House and Senate with large majorities Wednesday amid a flurry of end-of-year action.

The new probation law aims to limit the length of probation and prevent people from being sent back to jail for minor violations in a state with one of the highest rates of residents who are incarcerated or under supervision.

However, it drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the law doesn’t fix the problems that plague Pennsylvania’s probation system and will do little to reduce the number of people under supervision.

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The other bill allows courts to seal records of non-violent drug felonies with a minimum sentence of under 2 1/2 years in prison and or a maximum sentence of under five years.

Under the state’s existing Clean Slate law, it also allows the sealing of certain nonviolent felonies for those who are conviction-free for 10 years and reduces the waiting period for automated sealing of misdemeanors to seven years, rather than 10 years.

Both bills emerged as part of a nationwide reconsideration of the criminal justice system, to help people leaving incarceration resume their lives and find jobs more easily.

The case of rapper Meek Mill helped shine a light on Pennsylvania’s probation system after he spent most of his adult life on probation — including stints in jail for technical violations — before a court overturned his conviction in a drug and gun case in Philadelphia.

The bill will limit the circumstances under which a non-violent offender on probation can be sent to jail. It does not, however, put a cap on the length of a probation sentence.

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Judges can continue to “stack” probation sentences and impose probation after incarceration, the ACLU said. The bill also fails to provide an automatic or efficient way to end probation early, it said.

Under it, a judge can order an end to probation, regardless of any agreement on a sentence between a prosecutor and the defendant. But judges no longer have wide latitude to extend probation.

Probation is required to end unless the defendant commits a crime that demonstrates that they are a threat to public safety, has not completed certain treatment or has not paid restitution under some circumstances.

The bill also prohibits courts from extending someone’s probation for not paying fines or court costs if they are found to be unable to afford it.

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