Gene Barr: Probation reform a solution to Pa.’s workforce crisis

For over a century the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has advocated for policies that help make Pennsylvania a first-rate state, attract investment and strengthen our communities. Today, we are focused particularly on policies to address workforce shortages that are holding back our economy and preventing employers from recovering.

Addressing this challenge will require a multi-pronged approach with a focus on encouraging employment for Pennsylvanians who are too often marginalized. This includes improving Pennsylvania’s overburdened probation system, and the Legislature has an immediate opportunity to do so this session.

Businesses in the commonwealth are already experiencing existential challenges due to the pandemic, inflation and economic uncertainty. Our probation system places additional strain on employers and our workforce.

For example, individuals are often not allowed to travel outside their county lines, which limits work options. They have to show up to meetings with their probation officer scheduled at inconvenient and inflexible times, which can conflict with their employers’ working hours or scheduling needs. If they violate any of these rules, or make any minor misstep, they can be subject to a “technical” violation leading to months or even years of incarceration, which may give the impression they are a risky hire.

That’s why I applaud Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, for introducing Senate Bill 913, legislation that would begin to reverse these ineffective and counterproductive policies. While no single bill will solve all of Pennsylvania’s workforce or criminal justice problems, this legislation would bring urgently needed changes that are long overdue.

First, SB 913 would help limit incarcerations for non-criminal technical violations and result in fewer people being disrupted from their lives and jobs. SB 913 narrows the legal definition of a technical violation, limits the circumstances that allow for incarceration for a technical violation and caps the amount of time the court can sentence someone to for violating. As a result, there will be fewer people sent to prison — and away from employment — for these violations. In the event a violation does result in reincarceration, the bill directs courts to consider allowing the time to be served on weekends or other nonwork days, so probationers can hopefully retain employment.

SB 913 would also standardize the process for reviewing individuals on probation and allowing for early termination as long as they have adhered to the requirements toward completing their terms. Individuals can accelerate their review timeline by completing activities that enhance their employability, such as earning an educational degree or pursuing vocational training.

Pennsylvania’s own York County shows that we can safely reward individuals who are showing progress by terminating their probation early. District Attorney Dave Sunday’s early termination program has helped hundreds of people end their probation sentences early, with a positive impact on safety. Only 8% of individuals who were granted early termination reoffended, in contrast to the county’s overall recidivism rate of 35-40%.

Finally, SB 913 would limit the blanket condition that prevents people on probation from traveling outside their jurisdiction, expanding employment options for these individuals.

The reforms in SB 913 are not new. In fact, they have proven effective in unlocking talent in the workforce while still prioritizing public safety in dozens of states around the country.

It is critical for lawmakers, advocates and all stakeholders to embrace a range of policies and strategies to help Pennsylvania businesses struggling to fill open positions. SB 913 received overwhelming bipartisan support when it passed the State Senate in December, and I urge leaders in the House of Representatives to prioritize this legislation when they return to session.

Gene Barr is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Author: Gene BarrPublication: Trib Live