Guest Commentator: Representative Jordan Harris, House Democratic Whip, 186th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Criminal justice reform, which is the attempt at fixing the inequities and errors in our criminal justice system, is a topic that’s quickly rushing to the forefront of local, state, and national politics. This reform is truly bipartisan, as President Donald Trump has taken steps to reform the criminal justice system and the Democratic presidential candidates have discussed their stances on reform. Pennsylvania has the opportunity to be a leader in this reform effort and I’m proud to stand on the forefront of this issue.

Last year, Rep. Sheryl Delozier and I helped shepherd bipartisan legislation through the General Assembly to seal some non-violent criminal records once certain criteria were met. Known as the Clean Slate Act and signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf, Clean Slate has been hailed as a model for other states to follow. By June 2020, we expect to have automatically sealed 30 million criminal records.

How does criminal justice reform help Pennsylvania grow? Criminal justice reform is simply good economics. By sealing criminal records, we’re helping Pennsylvanians access jobs, housing, and educational opportunities that they would otherwise be barred from accessing. We’re helping our friends and neighbors who have stayed out of trouble truly move on from mistakes they made years ago. That helps keep people in the labor force and out of prison, which reduces state prison spending and increases taxable income. When people have jobs, they pay taxes and spend money in their local economy. This is a positive for Pennsylvania.

This session, Rep. Delozier and I are again working together across the aisle on criminal justice reform as we work on our probation system.  Probation in Pennsylvania is like quicksand, the harder you try and get out, the more you get pulled in. Our state has the second highest rate of correctional control, which counts any person in jail, on probation, or on parole, in the nation. It costs the state $42,000 per year to house an inmate. That’s triple what one year of tuition costs at a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education university.

Think about this. A Pennsylvanian on probation is required to maintain a job and meet with their probation officer. What if their employment and probation meeting schedules conflict? Both are required, but if a solution to the conflict can’t be found and that individual misses either work or the meeting, they can be sent back to jail. It’s an impossible choice that sets people up to fail. By lessening the punitive severity of our probation system and removing the pitfalls that entrap people, we’re allowing them to grow as individuals. That helps Pennsylvania grow.

That’s why diverse organizations such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the ACLU, The Commonwealth Foundation, and countless others support criminal justice reform. It’s truly an opportunity to help our fellow Pennsylvanians grow, which in turn will only grow our economy and our state. I look forward to continuing to work across the aisle and create true reform to help Pennsylvania grow.

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