Three years in a state prison awaited Maurice Hudson and not because he was in trouble again.
Sure, the father of three from Philadelphia had made some mistakes in the past but he was getting his life back together. He was working and doing all the right things. Still, he was staring at three years. Why? Because he didn’t have the $2,000 he owed in court costs for his case. Under Pennsylvania law, that qualifies as a “technical violation” of his probation sentence, punishable by incarceration.
That was last year.
Today, Hudson is a free man, only because a group of advocates fought for his release and paid his remaining court costs.
However, there are thousands of others across the state who are facing prison sentences for no-ncriminal, overly bureaucratic rules or technical violations, such as the inability to pay court costs due to low wages.
The term “fairness” is thrown around quite a bit these days, but by any objective measure, what almost happened to Maurice Hudson and what could happen to many others like him is not fair. Thankfully, legislation co-authored by Republican Sheryl Delozier offers a way forward.
This summer, the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously approved legislation that would create a more effective and less costly probation system to achieve accountability and provide rehabilitation for people on probation. Now, the state House of Representatives must vote to approve this common-sense approach during this year’s legislative session. Not only does this bill uphold conservative values of accountability and fiscal responsibility, but probation reform is supported by two-thirds of Pennsylvanians – including 60 percent of Republicans.
In recent years, we’ve seen a number of smart, conservative criminal justice reforms make our justice system more equitable and our communities safer while saving precious taxpayer dollars. In 2018, the president signed the FIRST STEP Act into law. That same year, Pennsylvania enacted a bipartisan “clean slate” law sealing 30 million criminal records for people who were acquitted or had old convictions for nonviolent crimes.
Yet, Pennsylvania’s justice system still imposes too many trip wires on the path to redemption while overburdening law enforcement and taxpayers.
Pennsylvania has more people on probation or parole than any other state except Georgia and excessive punishment for probation violations has resulted in a trapdoor to incarceration, with technical violations accounting for more than 50 percent of prison admissions and costing the commonwealth more than $100 million annually. You could make a case for these costs if they made our homes and communities safer. They don’t.
Crime rates in Pennsylvania are no better than in states with far fewer people on probation. Pennsylvania’s probation system is all stick and no carrot – it punishes people for even minor mistakes and fails to reward them for significant achievements. This is why the probation reform bill passed earlier this year is so important. It reduces and restricts punishments for technical violations. If a person commits a non-criminal probation violation – such as traveling beyond county lines to pick up a child from school – these reforms prevent them from being sent back to prison.
Probation reform reducing the number of people unnecessarily languishing in the justice system while allowing law enforcement to more meaningfully allocate limited resources isn’t just conjecture—it’s been demonstrated in other states – Missouri, for instance, reduced its probation population by 20 percent without increasing crime rates. The Pennsylvania House should take up and pass the unanimously approved Senate bill before its break.
In today’s divided politics, probation reform stands out as something we all can embrace. Surely, we can agree that no one – not Maurice Hudson or the thousands of other Pennsylvanians in his position – should go to prison for trivial violations such as arriving late to an appointment or crossing county lines.
And they certainly shouldn’t go to prison for being poor.
James D. Schultz is a partner at the Holland and Knight law firm and a CNN legal commentator. He served as senior associate counsel and special assistant to the president in the Office of White House Counsel during the Trump administration and General Counsel to the Commonweath during the Corbett Administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Published at Thu, 19 Nov 2020 07:30:00 +0000