Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats prioritized criminal justice reform and changes to child sexual abuse laws in 2019, passing landmark legislation that Gov. Tom Wolf signed.
The bills were designed to reduce the prison population and give nonviolent offenders a chance to reenter society successfully.
Criminal justice reform
Wolf signed a package of Justice Reinvestment bills Dec. 18. Senate Bill 500, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, will create the County Adult Probation and Parole Advisory Committee. A bill by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Brookhaven, will streamline the sentencing system and encourage sentencing of nonviolent offenders with a history of drug use into treatment programs instead of prison. The State Intermediate Punishment Program is now known as the State Drug Treatment Program as part of the law.
The bill will also give parole agents the authority to detain a parolee that violates the terms of their release and improve the path to parole for those who serve short prison sentences.
The House failed to pass another portion of the reform package. Senate Bill 502, sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, would have would have amended the Crime Victims act to improve notification. The bill would also allow counties to keep supervision fees collected from probationers.
The goal of the reform package is to reduce the inmate population by 600 in the next five years, which could save the commonwealth about $45 million, Wolf said when signing the bills.
“These important pieces of legislation will cut red tape, reducing bureaucracy will result in savings of time and money, and we will reinvest those savings into criminal justice programs that reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and better serve victims of crime,” Wolf said.
Bill package addresses victims of childhood sexual abuse
A package of bills that would give victims of childhood sexual abuse more protections was signed by Wolf in November. The bills were the result of an investigation by a grand jury into allegations against Catholic clergy but will apply to all childhood sexual abuse claims.
House Bill 962 eliminates the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. Victims will also have more time to file civil claims. Victims who are 18 to 24 have until age 30 to file civil claims. Victims can receive counseling through the Crime Victims Compensation fund. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Temple.
Wolf also signed House Bill 1051, sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-North Wales, that enhances penalties for mandated reporters who do not report suspected child abuse. A bill sponsored by Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Hazleton, exempts reports to law enforcement from nondisclosure agreements.
Court action stops Marsy’s Law
A constitutional amendment that extends the rights of crime victims was approved by Pennsylvania voters by a margin of 74 percent to 25 percent. But federal court blocked the amendment, known as Marsy’s law, due to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill would give victims the right to be notified and attend court hearings and testify in proceedings against the defendant. Opponents said the amendment addresses several issues that should be considered separately. Twelve other states have passed Marsy’s Law, which is named for a Californian who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.