‘It’s time’ to reform Pennsylvania’s probation system—CNN host Van Jones comes to Pittsburgh with a clear message
With two words, Van Jones, the popular CNN host and political commentator, summed up the sentiments of nearly everyone at an event in East Liberty, Sept. 16:
Jones said it’s time for something to be done about all of the people caught up in the revolving door of Pennsylvania’s probation system. “People are on probation for too long, they’re going back to prison for violations that are too small, and they have no incentive to do better because it’s so punitive,” he told the New Pittsburgh Courier at the Sept. 16 event at Repair the World in East Liberty meant to advocate for probation reform.
“Reform” is the operative word—Jones is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, an organization that is committed to advancing criminal justice reform and eliminating outdated laws that perpetuate injustice, starting with probation and parole.
Pennsylvania has the highest rate of people under probation or parole supervision in the northeastern U.S. (296,000), and third-highest in the country, behind only Georgia and Idaho, according to a 2018 report from the Columbia University Justice Lab.
Jones was in Pittsburgh as a special guest of state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, who is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1555, which, if it becomes law, would cap probation sentences for felonies at five years, and two years for misdemeanors. HB 1555 would also: ban courts from extending probation terms because a person failed to pay a fine, cost, or restitution, if the person is not financially able to pay such amounts; ban courts from imposing one sentence of probation consecutively with another sentence of probation; and permit early termination of probation sentences for compliant probationers.
“The reason why this bill is so important is because it’s the first step in us doing what’s necessary to make sure that we change and influence the whole probation process,” Rep. Gainey told the crowd at the Sept. 16 event. “If you take one nugget of what you learned here today and just share it with somebody, your help, our strength will help to change the whole probation process. So tonight is the beginning of a journey to give people their life back.”
Sometimes, a conviction of a crime and subsequent sentencing will not result in jail time—rather, probation can be ordered by a county judge for a period that usually exceeds the amount of time of the original jail sentence.
Other times, a state prison sentence, which usually is a two-year sentence or longer, is followed by the individual serving jail time, then applying for parole, which allows an individual to serve the remainder of their sentence out of jail. Parole could be granted or denied, but in either case, once the time has been served, a county judge could then levy probation on the individual for a period of time of their choosing, consistent with statutory maximum laws. Thus, the individual is not out of the clear just yet.
Violations of probation range from serious crimes to technical violations. It’s those technical violations, such as not reporting to a probation officer at the scheduled time or place, not paying any required fines or restitution, visiting certain people or places, or traveling out of state without permission, which should not result in jail time, according to Jones and Rep. Gainey.
“We believe that the probation system should be a springboard to success, not a trap door into failure,” Jones told the Courier. “We believe that the people who are on probation—if they commit a new crime, then that’s one issue, but when you have people who are just late to a meeting, or they went to the wrong neighborhood because their aunt was sick…and they go back to prison for two years? That’s completely unfair and it’s not necessary.”
Blacks have an incarceration rate nearly nine times as high as Whites in Pennsylvania, according to a 2016 study by The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. Reforming the probation system in Pennsylvania and other states would be particularly beneficial to the African American community, who, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, despite being only 13 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 38 percent of America’s state prisons.
Jones, who earned a degree from Yale Law School in 1993, told the Pittsburgh crowd that “he saw more kids doing drugs at Yale than I ever saw in any housing project. I saw more kids breaking rules, breaking laws at Yale than I ever saw in any low-income community. But those kids (in the low-income communities who are majority-Black) went to prison. If anything happened to those kids (at Yale, an ivy league university that’s mostly White), they went to rehab, or Europe, and they got help, and then they went on and got good lives.”
But it was the African Americans and Hispanics “just a few blocks away in the housing projects of New Haven, Connecticut,” Jones said, “doing little bitty amounts of drugs and then getting big jail sentences, coming home unemployed, and in the cycle of being in and out of jail.”
For years, Jones said, he felt only Democrats and progressives cared about what he calls an unjust probation system in many states, including Pennsylvania. But, “it turns out there are people in the Republican Party, there are conservatives, just as much as Democrats, who say that this is not how we’re supposed to be treating human beings.”
It remains to be seen if there will be enough support in the Pa. House to ultimately pass House Bill 1555.
“It turns out both political parties have some love for freedom, some love for human dignity,” Jones said, “and yet we have not held hands to help.”
Originally Posted Here: https://newpittsburghcourier.com/2019/10/16/its-time-to-reform-pennsylvanias-probation-system-cnn-host-van-jones-comes-to-pittsburgh-with-a-clear-message/