More criminal records in Pennsylvania can be sealed from public view and fewer people might be kept on probation or in county jails, under legislation signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro on Thursday (Dec. 14).
Both bills passed the House and Senate with large majorities Wednesday amid a flurry of end-of-year action.
The new probation law aims to limit the length of probation and prevent people from being sent back to jail for minor violations in a state with one of the highest rates of residents who are incarcerated or under supervision.
However, it drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the law doesn’t fix the problems that plague Pennsylvania’s probation system and will do little to reduce the number of people under supervision.
The other bill allows courts to seal records of non-violent drug felonies with a minimum sentence of under 2 1/2 years in prison and/or a maximum sentence of under five years.
Under the state’s existing Clean Slate law, it also allows the sealing of certain nonviolent felonies for those who are conviction-free for 10 years and reduces the waiting period for automated sealing of misdemeanors to seven years, rather than 10 years.
Both bills emerged as part of a nationwide reconsideration of the criminal justice system, to help people leaving incarceration resume their lives and find jobs more easily.
The case of rapper Meek Mill helped shine a light on Pennsylvania’s probation system after he spent most of his adult life on probation — including stints in jail for technical violations — before a court overturned his conviction in a drug and gun case in Philadelphia.
The bill will limit the circumstances under which a non-violent offender on probation can be sent to jail. It does not, however, put a cap on the length of a probation sentence.
Judges can continue to “stack” probation sentences and impose probation after incarceration, the ACLU said. The bill also fails to provide an automatic or efficient way to end probation early, it said.
Under it, a judge can order an end to probation, regardless of any agreement on a sentence between a prosecutor and the defendant. But judges no longer have wide latitude to extend probation.
Probation is required to end unless the defendant commits a crime that demonstrates that they are a threat to public safety, has not completed certain treatment or has not paid restitution under some circumstances.
The bill also prohibits courts from extending someone’s probation for not paying fines or court costs if they are found to be unable to afford it.
At Friday’s ceremonial bill signing of the bipartisan Comprehensive Probation Reform legislation, formerly SB 838, Mill took the podium.
Mill was convicted on drug and weapons charges in 2008, when he was 18 years old. Mill faced a years-long series of legal entanglements that helped transform the rapper into an advocate for criminal justice reform and launch the non-profit REFORM Alliance, whose mission is to “transform probation and parole by changing laws, systems and culture to create real pathways to work and wellbeing.” On Jan. 12, 2023, it was announced that Gov. Tom Wolf granted Mill a pardon on the 15-year-old drug and gun charges, meaning his offenses will be permanently expunged from his criminal record.
The rapper described how each time he crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to pick his son up at school in New Jersey, he was crossing state lines and “actually committing crime the whole time for technical violations.”
“I didn’t have any way to get around that because I already was in jail my whole 20s. My son seen me in prison. I wanted to take my son to school,” he said before tearing up.
“I don’t want to get emotional,” said Mill. “It’s a lot.”
“I’m at a point in my life — we all grew up in the streets,” he said. “We tried to be better, but they labeled us felons … I had to fight against that the whole time to gain my respect and be who I am today, and I’m proud of that. People know I don’t even really drop tears, but I want to say this because there’s a lot of young men who follow me in the street, and they don’t even know what I go through to even be in these places with government officials, to change my life, to get on the stage, to be able to speak for a lot of people.”
“It’s not for clout,” Mill said. “It’s something that I stand for. It’s something that I live.”
“I don’t know how I cried on the news I ain’t even cry in my cell! I needed that!” Meek wrote on X, formerly Twitter, Friday night (Dec. 15).
“Changed a law in pa for my people …. Shit made me cryyy,” he said on Instagram, where he shared a photo from that day. “Thank you @joshshapiropa and everyone who worked on this bill @michaelrubin.”
“Thanks for sharing your voice and your story, Meek. You’re making an impact for millions of people. Proud that we got this done,” Shapiro commented on the post.