Pennsylvania Governor Signs Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms Into Law

The new legislation includes changes to probation laws, an expanded record expungement program, and measures to protect civil rights for incarcerated women.

Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro has signed into law a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms in Pennsylvania. The legislation, passed by the state House and Senate, aims to address long-standing issues within the justice system, including burdensome probation laws and limited opportunities for record expungement. The reforms have garnered both bipartisan support and opposition, reflecting the complex nature of criminal justice reform.

Expanding the Clean Slate Program

One of the key components of the new legislation is the expansion of Pennsylvania’s “Clean Slate” program. Spearheaded by Representative Jordan Harris, the expansion allows for automatic expungement eligibility for certain non-violent felony offenses and shortens the waiting period for misdemeanor and summary offenses. The program aims to help individuals with criminal records find employment and housing by removing the stigma associated with their past convictions. Civil rights and defense groups, such as the ACLU of Pennsylvania, have expressed support for the expanded Clean Slate program.

Overhauling Probation Laws

The new legislation also includes significant changes to the state’s probation system. Judges will now be required to tailor probation terms to individual circumstances, taking into account factors such as employment and child-care responsibilities. The reforms establish a “presumption against total confinement,” encouraging judges to avoid re-incarcerating individuals for minor probation violations. The inclusion of a timeline for review conferences allows those on probation to petition for early termination of court supervision. The bipartisan support for these changes reflects a growing recognition of the need for a more rehabilitative approach to probation.

Mixed Reactions and Concerns

While the expansion of the Clean Slate program and the probation reforms have garnered widespread support, some local civil rights organizations have expressed concerns. They argue that the legislation fails to make meaningful improvements to Pennsylvania’s probation system and, in some instances, worsens the strictures of court-ordered supervision. Of particular concern is the provision allowing judges to keep individuals on “administrative probation” if they have completed the terms of their supervision but still owe restitution. Critics argue that this creates a convoluted system that can result in extended supervision or incarceration for technical violations.

Controversial Measures and Opposition

In addition to the reforms aimed at improving the criminal justice system, the legislation also includes measures that have faced opposition. Two bills expanding or enhancing sentences for existing crimes, such as “organized retail theft” and stealing packages, have drawn criticism from groups like the ACLU. Opponents argue that these changes further contribute to the state’s already extensive list of crimes and penalties, potentially exacerbating issues related to mass incarceration. Progressive members of the Democratic party have also voiced their opposition, emphasizing the need to examine the broader crimes code.

Special Prosecutor for Crimes on Public Transit

One of the most contentious aspects of the legislation is the provision requiring the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle crimes committed on public transit within Philadelphia. The bill, proposed by Senator Wayne Langerholc, received support from Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, who argued that it is essential for restoring law and order in the SEPTA transit network. However, critics, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, have raised concerns about the infringement on prosecutorial discretion and the potential unconstitutionality of the bill.


The sweeping criminal justice reforms signed into law by Governor Josh Shapiro represent a significant step forward for Pennsylvania. The expansion of the Clean Slate program and the overhaul of probation laws aim to provide individuals with second chances and create a fairer justice system. However, concerns have been raised about certain provisions, including those that enhance sentences for existing crimes and the requirement for a special prosecutor for crimes on public transit. As Pennsylvania moves forward with these reforms, it is essential to monitor their impact and address any unintended consequences that may arise.

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