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A bipartisan probation reform bill has been suggested by Pennsylvania senators to tackle a number of issues with the state’s current probationary system. The proposed bill would set caps on how long probation can last and how long someone can be sent to prison for violating probation, and restrict judges from adding time onto sentences due to the inability to pay restitution or any perceived court dress code violations. With this bill the senators hope to lower the large number of inmates currently on probation and parole.

Probation vs. Parole

Probation and Parole are two concepts which the general public often get mixed up. Probation is a sentence which replaces prison, while parole is the early release from a prison sentence. For example, you could either be sentenced to two years of probation, or two years of prison. If your sentence is two years of prison, then after one year (half of your maximum sentence) you would be eligible to serve the rest of your sentence on parole. However, while these are two separate concepts, those who are enrolled in each of these systems must follow very similar rules.

To avoid being hit with a probation or parole violation, you must:

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  • Receive permission from your parole agent before changing your address or traveling outside of a specified area
  • Inform your parole agent of any changes in your job, training, or schooling status within 72 hours
  • Make restitution
  • Not break any criminal, driving, drugs, or alcohol laws
  • Not own a firearm

But there is one major difference between probation and parole as far as this new proposed bill is concerned. When violating parole, you can be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of your maximum sentence. Probation violations, on the other hand, can see you resentenced entirely.

Why Does Probation Need to be Reformed?

There are two main issues with the current probationary system. The first is that there are simply too many people currently on probation or parole in the state. The second is that time spent on probation can often seem arbitrary.

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Currently there are a combined total of almost 40,000 people serving probation or parole with the state of Pennsylvania. This number does not include those serving probation or parole for specific counties. But why is this a problem? First of all, it costs a lot of (taxpayer) money to keep track of all those people. Secondly, there are not nearly enough parole officers to adequately keep track of all of them. This means that time, resources, and money are being wasted on keeping track of low-risk offenders. And the more resources that are spent on low-risk offenders, the less that are spent on higher-risk offenders.

The second issue comes from how sentencing, and resentencing, occurs. There is currently no cap set for how long someone can be on probation, and so it can last for decades. Not only does this length of time spent on probation mean that more resources are being taken up by each individual, but it also often makes it difficult for those individuals to pursue new opportunities involving both work and life. So how does this happen? Let’s say you were originally sentenced to three years of probation. Two years passed without any violations, but then you miss an appointment with your parole agent. This could cause you to be resentenced entirely for your original crime, thus throwing away those two years you’ve already served. Since there are so many things which can count as probation violations, if this happens a number of times you could easily see yourself still on probation 10 years later despite the original sentence of only three years.

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But that’s not all, each violation also comes with a prison sentence. Your first violation is six months, the second is nine months, and all other violations after that are one year in length. Simply by getting a few minor violations you could end up in prison for a longer amount of time for violation offences than you would have if you were sentenced to prison for your original crime.

What is being proposed?

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So what exactly is being proposed in this new senate bill, and how does it intend to solve the problems with the current system? To start, the bill proposes that probation is capped at five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors. These caps will not help violent offenders get out of prison any sooner, but instead are targeted towards non-violent offenders who don’t need to be monitored for decades. On top of these caps, it’s also proposed that judges should no longer be allowed to increase the length of probation due to the inability of offenders to pay restitution or for courtroom dress code violations. These rules often unfairly affect lower-income individuals.

Additionally, the bill seeks to do away with the ability for judges to sentence probation violators to the legal maximum sentence of their original crime when the violation is a misdemeanor. This would help non-violent offenders get out of the system rather than being stuck in it for years after they would have otherwise been free.

Conclusion

The bipartisan probation reform bill seeks to reduce the number of individuals currently in the probation and parole system in a number of ways. By setting caps on the amount of time probation can last, and by removing unfair reasons for adding on additional time, lawmakers hope that more offenders will pass through the system rather than become stuck within it.

The Law Offices of Robert L. Schwarz

Have you violated the terms of your probation or parole in Pennsylvania? Even minor violations can have dire consequences under the current laws, which is why having an experienced attorney on your side is important. Contact me today to discuss the details of your case and to find out how I will aggressively defend your rights.