I was first placed on probation when I was 12 years old. Into adulthood, I struggled within our criminal justice system, until I was finally able to turn my life around and move on. As an adult, I’ve dedicated myself to helping others break out of this system and rebuild their lives. This week, lawmakers in Harrisburg are debating a bill that would make critical improvements to our probation system — Senate Bill 838. I am urging them to pass it.
Pennsylvania has one of the most punitive and nonsensical probation systems in the country. Through my work in communities across Philadelphia, I encounter tragic stories everyday of people who become trapped in the system, sometimes for decades. Sometimes, they are too poor to make payments on their fines, fees and restitution. Other times, they struggle to navigate the rules and conditions placed on them by probation and commit minor violations that lead to incarceration or endless extensions of their probation terms. In nearly all cases, the system does little to put them on a better path.
What if instead of being a trapdoor incarceration or a barrier to success, our supervision system actually helped redirect people to work, wellbeing, and stability?
There has to be a better way. What if instead of being a trapdoor incarceration or a barrier to success, our supervision system actually helped redirect people to work, wellbeing, and stability?
That’s the system that Senate Bill 838 will move us towards.
Aligning the rules to actual people
It begins with individualized conditions. Instead of blanket, one-size-fits-none probation rules, SB 838 would require courts to set conditions of probation that are aligned to people’s unique risks and needs — while also setting conditions that are the least restrictive necessary to support rehabilitation and protect public safety.
SB 838 would also completely revamp the courts’ treatment of minor rule-breaking technical violations and help close the probation-to-prison pipeline in Pennsylvania. Instead of imposing incarceration for these violations, SB 838 sets a presumption against incarceration. The bill also more clearly defines and narrows what constitutes a violation and caps the amount of time that the court can incarcerate someone. This would be life-changing for thousands of people who are needlessly incarcerated for technical violations every year.
For five years, while lawmakers have been moved by stories and supportive of reform, the process has faltered and we have not been able to get legislation that would break so many free from this system over the finish line.
When I was on probation years ago, I learned from the Defender Association of Philadelphia that I was eligible to apply for early termination of my probation. Until that moment, I had no idea that such a process existed or that it was an option for me. I’ve always heard that knowledge is power, but what we don’t realize enough is that knowledge is also empowerment. The knowledge of early termination options empowered me to successfully terminate my own probation early, and I’ve counseled and assisted so many others through the early termination process in the years since.
SB 838 would create, for the first time, a statewide standard for early termination. It mandates that an early termination review conference must take place either after at the two-year mark for misdemeanor probation, four-year mark for felony probation, or halfway through a probation sentence, whichever is sooner. The goal: Ensure people are on probation no longer necessary, to both protect public safety and empower individuals to make the choices that take them down a better path.
Importantly, this statewide standard would not interfere with any existing early termination programs already working in counties across the state or foreclose any existing pathways to early termination. Instead, it ensures that everyone in the Commonwealth, regardless of zip code, at least has access to this pathway to safe, early discharge.
When people know their options and have a path to autonomy, they can use those tools to advocate for themselves and break free.
Is this the year probation reform finally happens?
Another process I’ve educated myself on and engaged in is the legislative one in Harrisburg. Five years ago, I started to advocate for policy change and probation reform. I’ve gone to the Capitol and met with legislators to share my story and the experiences of so many that I work with, hoping that their knowledge of how probation is negatively impacting communities would empower them to change it.
But for five years, while stories moved lawmakers to support reform, the process has faltered; we have not been able to get legislation that would break so many free from this system over the finish line.
I hope this year is different.
I hope political and ideological fights don’t drown out our stories. Real people’s futures hang in the balance of probation reform making it to the Governor’s desk this year. Senate Bill 838 is just a few hurdles away from reaching Shapiro — and he’s already pledged to sign it.
I truly believe that if more folks knew what was in this bill, if people who would be impacted by it raised their voices, and if we reached out to the legislators to empower them to pass these reforms without further delay, we could celebrate something truly momentous this year.
Our lived experience is powerful, if we just arm ourselves with the knowledge of how to share it and empower meaningful change. Now is the time and Harrisburg is the place.
I urge my friends and my neighbors to call their state legislators and ask them to pass Senate Bill 838 this session. We know these changes are long overdue and cannot afford to delay the good it would do for our communities.
LaTonya T. Myers is a Philadelphia-based criminal justice reform advocate.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
MORE ON PROBATION REFORM FROM THE PHILADELPHIA CITIZENWikimedia Commons