State Policy Network
Commonwealth Foundation reforms Pennsylvania’s broken criminal justice system

Pennsylvania has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast. The state also has the second-highest number of offenders under the supervision of adult correctional systems. On top of that, recidivism for the state’s parolees remains high, costing taxpayers approximately $224 million per year in additional incarceration costs. Parolee programs lack structure and waste resources.

The Commonwealth Foundation has worked for years to fix these problems and help reform Pennsylvania’s broken criminal justice system. Thanks to their sustained efforts, the state passed significant criminal justice reform in 2012 called the Justice Reinvestment Act 1 (JRI 1). JRI 1 successfully trimmed the state prison population and continued reducing Pennsylvania’s crime rate. But Commonwealth didn’t stop there. Instead, they began pushing for the passage of further reforms under the umbrella of the Justice Reinvestment Act 2 (JRI 2).

JRI 2’s recommendations include reducing the Pennsylvania’s prison population through automatic parole; increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration and well-informed sentencing guidelines; creating a consistent and effective probation system; addressing the collateral consequences of criminal convictions; and implementing options to help those convicted of a crime pay down fines, restitution, or court costs.

Commonwealth faced several obstacles during their campaign. First, JRI 2 stalled during the entire 2018 legislative session because the “law and order” element of the majority House Republicans opposed anything that appeared lenient towards criminals. To make matters worse, there were a string of murders by parolees leading up to the Fall 2019 legislative session, which rallied the “law and order” folks and helped to falsely tarnish the reputation of JRI 2 to the public.

In an effort to overcome this opposition, Commonwealth united a broad coalition to support the bipartisan potential of criminal justice reform. It brought together groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and several conservative legislators. While Commonwealth fought to keep everyone together, a late amendment that included mandatory minimums for some violent crimes threatened the entire coalition. This last-ditch effort to appease skeptical rural Republicans frustrated many Democrats and Commonwealth’s left-leaning partners, nearly scuttling the entire project.

With Commonwealth’s allies in the Republican caucus skeptical of the bills in JRI 2 and passionate advocates on the left who saw compromise as failure, Commonwealth labored to strike a balance. Commonwealth’s advocacy had to demonstrate that these reforms would advance public safety while also bring fairness to the justice system. By respecting all opinions and providing timely policy analysis to alleviate fears from all angles, Commonwealth succeeded in the years-long effort to pass JRI 2.

JRI 2 created better access to drug treatment, automatic parole for non-violent short-term offenders, improved data-sharing on potential parolees, increased resources and training for overwhelmed county-level probation departments, improved sentencing practices, and increased efficiency in the state’s criminal justice system. The legislation is projected to save taxpayers $48 million while increasing funding for Pennsylvania’s ailing and overwhelmed local probation offices. In addition to JRI 2, Commonwealth championed licensing reforms that allow former criminals to rejoin the workforce, giving them the opportunity to earn an honest living and re-engage in their communities. Thanks to these expanded resources, more Pennsylvanians will be able to rebuild their lives.

Through this victory, Commonwealth earned a significant level of credibility with traditionally left-of-center groups while further establishing themselves as a “voice of reason” on the right. Their impassioned advocacy for humane criminal justice reform countered a false narrative among detractors that the Foundation is more concerned with fiscal matters than helping individuals pursue a better life. For their success in bringing crucial criminal justice reform to Pennsylvania, Commonwealth was nominated for the SPN’s Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement. Commonwealth was selected as a finalist in the Biggest Win category.

Categories: State News
Organization: State Policy Network