Criminal Justice Reform in Pennsylvania
Forward by Senator Nikil Saval
Pennsylvania is the most incarcerated state in the Northeast, with some 96,000 people behind bars in its county jails and state correctional institutions. Unlike most states, it denies people sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder any eligibility of parole. Elderly lifers and people serving lengthy sentences—many in their sixties and seventies, many of them decades removed from their crime, many of them exemplary prisoners, many in need of medical attention—have no way to exit the system and are forced to die in prison without the comfort of their loved ones. A startling number of people in Pennsylvania jails have never been convicted of a crime: around 35,000 residents are held in pretrial detention, one of the highest rates in the country. Pennsylvania, virtually alone among its neighbors, does not fund public defenders for this population, and many go without adequate legal help. A hugely disproportionate number of those incarcerated, pre- and post-trial, are Black and Latino.
These depressing statistics cover only the incarcerated population. But even a short time in prison may mark a person for life. A criminal record makes it difficult to find housing, a job, and more. Harsh probation terms and lifetime parole supervision means that thousands, while technically unconfined, are subject to invisible shackles that limit their movements and their freedom years after they have served their time.
Pennsylvania legislators and governors built this harsh system over decades, in part by adding mandatory minimum sentencing, making it harder for people to exit the shadow of the prison. It is extraordinarily expensive, costing an average of $60,000 to house an individual—a number that balloons to nearly $100,000 when an individual needs medical attention. It is unfair to the incarcerated, unfair to those who leave incarceration, unfair to their loved ones, and unfair to Pennsylvanians who bear its costs. It is in critical need of a Governor who will pursue reform.
That is why it is essential that we elect Josh Shapiro as Governor. Shapiro has committed to pursuing common sense criminal justice policies, supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, that will reduce the burden that the prison system places on Pennsylvania. Delivering on these commitments will mean that more Pennsylvanians have the freedom to find a job and raise a family, and that fewer will needlessly spend time caught in the prison system, when they could be making serious and meaningful contributions to society. His platform takes up proposals that many reformers have pursued for years.
While Shapiro is pushing to move forward as a state, his opponent, Doug Mastriano, would take us backwards—not just years, but decades. He has pledged to enact new mandatory minimums, to criminalize the right to abortion and incarcerate abortion providers, and more. For the overwhelming majority of us who are fighting for basic freedoms, and for a fairer, more just system, too much is on the line. We have a real chance at positive, meaningful reform with Josh Shapiro as Governor. We need to do everything we can to ensure that he wins in November.
Written by Josh Shapiro
I fundamentally believe that all Pennsylvanians, no matter their background, want and deserve a criminal justice system that both keeps our communities safe and enforces the law in a fair and consistent manner. I refuse to accept the false choice between public safety and common sense, comprehensive criminal justice reform — and it’s a choice I won’t make as Pennsylvania’s next Governor.
As Attorney General, I have worked to make our communities safer while advocating for key reforms. Under my watch, the Office of the Attorney General has arrested over 8,100 drug dealers and has taken thousands of illegal guns off the streets. My office has also worked to curb gun violence by collaborating across state lines to crack down on illegal gun trafficking, and led the fight to close the ghost gun loophole. I have also stood alongside fellow law enforcement across Pennsylvania, calling for increased funding for recruitment and training to fill police staffing shortages and working collaboratively with local police departments.
At the same time, we have worked to make our criminal justice system more fair so that more people have faith in the process. As Attorney General, I enacted bail reform for non-violent and low-level offenses for cases handled by the OAG, led the bipartisan coalition to create a statewide Police Misconduct Database in Pennsylvania, directed our Agents to stop using chokeholds and end the use of no-knock warrants. I also started the Law Enforcement Treatment Initiative (LETI), which partners with local law enforcement to expand access to treatment for Pennsylvanians suffering from substance use disorder. Under my leadership, the Office of the Attorney General also hired its first ever Diversity and Inclusion officer to improve recruitment and hiring practices – 60% of the office’s new hires were women and people of color.
As Governor, I will carry on these values and sign legislation to reform the cash bail system for non-violent offenses while maintaining strict standards of accountability for violent crimes, create uniform use of force standards for police officers to ban chokeholds, and restrict no-knock warrants. Furthermore, I will allocate resources to include specialized mental health personnel on the crisis response teams of local police departments, fund mental health and other specialty courts, and ensure treatment is accessible for those in need – because drug addiction is a disease, not a crime.
We must also make smart, systemic changes so every Pennsylvanian can have confidence that justice is being served fairly.
First, we must reform Pennsylvania’s broken probation and parole system. More than half of prison admissions in Pennsylvania are due to probation and parole violations, and Pennsylvania taxpayers pay approximately $101 million each year to incarcerate people who have committed no new crimes but have instead committed only technical violations. As Governor, I will stop costly imprisonment for technical rule violations. Rather than spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money on unproductive and unjust incarceration, I will reinvest this money into initiatives and programs that directly target getting violent criminals off of our streets.
Second, in my first budget as governor, I will include a line item that funds legal representation for indigent Pennsylvanians. I have done this before – as Montgomery County Commissioner, I invested in our public defender system. Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that allocates zero dollars to public defender’s offices. Under my administration, that will change. Adequate legal representation is key to ensuring a fair and just legal system.
Third, as Governor, I will continue to oppose mandatory minimum sentences. Pennsylvania has not had mandatory minimums in our laws since 2015, and we should not bring these counterproductive, one-size-fits-all sentences back.
Fourth, I will sign legislation reforming Pennsylvania’s “felony murder rule” to ensure those who do not take a life are not given a mandatory life sentence. Pennsylvania is one of only a few states where second-degree felony murder leads to an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole, leaving over a thousand people to die in prison. Violent criminals must be held accountable with serious penalties and at the same time our laws must ensure fairness in sentencing and give judges proper discretion.
Fifth, Pennsylvania’s prison population is rapidly aging, presenting large costs to the taxpayers due to increased medical care expenses. By 2030, over a third of the prison population in Pennsylvania will be over 55. Inmates over the age of 65 have the lowest risk of recidivism of any age group. Right now, our system leaves elderly grandparents who have paid their dues to society and served their time with no option but to spend the rest of their life waiting to die in prison. I will sign bipartisan legislation to create opportunities for elderly prisoners who are no longer deemed a threat to apply and be evaluated for geriatric parole or a case-by-case basis.
Sixth, as Attorney General, I never sought the death penalty, and as Governor, I will not sign a death warrant and I would sign legislation to abolish the death penalty. As AG, I have seen firsthand how systemic inequities impact every level of our society, from the workforce to the criminal justice system — and I believe the death penalty is built on that unfair system, and should not exist in our Commonwealth. It is not shown to be an effective deterrent, it costs taxpayers an estimated $272 million per execution, and the time has come to end it in Pennsylvania.
Finally, Pennsylvania’s overburdened police and courts have more critical public safety work to do than arrest and adjudicate people for marijuana use. Furthermore, prohibition of marijuana has created an underground economy that fuels violence perpetrated by drug traffickers. The current prohibition on marijuana is also holding the Commonwealth back from realizing over $500 million of economic tax benefits annually. As Governor, I will sign legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, expunge records of those serving time for non-violent marijuana convictions, and ensure that a portion of the revenue is used to support minority ownership in the marijuana industry.
As we make those changes to our criminal justice system, we must also make significant investments to bring the police and the community closer together. When you hire more police officers, that’s an opportunity for that police officer to get out of the patrol car and walk the streets, to see the humanity in our children and know their names, and listen to the people directly in communities they’re sworn to protect. That’s why as Attorney General, I urged our State Legislature to add $28.5 million to our state budget for incentive programs for new recruits like sign-up bonuses and public scholarships for municipal police training and certification programs. But recruitment is not enough — we must ensure police officers are receiving the proper training, benefits and mental health services to do their jobs. As Governor, I will ensure that local police departments have the resources necessary to protect and serve their communities and will demand the Legislature fund our police appropriately.
The future of Pennsylvania must be one in which we focus on public safety and cracking down on dangerous criminals, while also enacting smart reforms to ensure fairness in our criminal justice system. This will allow us to instead direct our valuable taxpayer dollars towards what’s important: protecting our communities, providing opportunities to rehabilitate returning citizens, and ensuring access to critical services like mental healthcare, drug treatment, and employment opportunities.
The blueprint for a more equitable and safe future lies in the values I have championed throughout my time in public service — and as your next Governor, I will prioritize both the safety of our residents by investing in public safety while pursuing smart criminal justice reform that will address those inequities, restore trust, and make our communities safer.