After 5-Year Battle, New Pa. Probation Reforms Pushed by Meek Mill Go into Effect

Rapper Meek Mill wipes tears after Gov. Josh Shapiro, right, signed probation reform legislation in Philadelphia on Friday. — PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE/ABDUL R. SULAYMAN

On a Friday afternoon last December, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill stood on a stage next to Gov. Josh Shapiro, describing the fear he felt every time he crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge to drop his son off at school.

“I already was in jail my whole 20s — my son seen me in prison,” he said a moment before breaking down. “And I wanted to take my son to school. So I thought that, it’s either I’m going to go to jail, or I’m going to take my son to school. And I ended up taking my son to school.”

It was just one of the daily indignities Mill suffered as part of his yearslong battle with the justice system, as parole and probation violations sent him to prison again and again — including a two-to-four-year sentence he received for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike.

That incident helped turn Mill into a national cause célèbre in the hip-hop community and beyond, culminating on that December Friday with the signing of Act 44 — a law designed to ease the more draconian provisions of Pennsylvania’s probation system that have kept people like Mill stuck on a merry-go-round of ever-longer probation stints and re-incarceration.

As of this month, that law is now in effect, with provisions that aim to scale back the sometimes trivial, sometimes onerous “technical violations” at the heart of that vicious cycle.

“Technical violations pervade the system in Pennsylvania in a way that we’ve seen almost nowhere else in the country,” said Erin Haney, the deputy chief advocacy officer and senior director of policy and law at REFORM Alliance, a national advocacy organization co-founded by Meek Mill. “What Act 44 does is it changes the definition of a technical violation. It narrows what a technical violation can be defined as. It limits the circumstances of when someone can be incarcerated for a technical violation. And then it caps the amount of time that you can be incarcerated on those violations.”

Redefining technical violations and reducing penalties

Theoretically, probation serves as an alternative to incarceration — offenders are allowed to go free but are placed under supervision, which includes certain conditions or rules that must be followed. Technical violations refer to a failure to comply with those conditions.

Conditions vary based on an offender’s crimes and background, but common ones include reporting to a probation officer, drug testing, counseling, maintaining steady employment, performing community service and paying restitution to victims.

But other conditions, Erin Haney said, are “tragically ridiculous and damaging,” resulting in frequent incarceration.

“In Pennsylvania, 54% of prison admissions are for supervision violations,” Haney said. “So there are more prison admissions for supervision violations than there are for people just committing new crimes.”

Haney cited the case of a man whose probation prohibited him from crossing county lines, making it difficult for him to find steady, well-paying work. Although he eventually did secure a job, he struggled to find affordable housing due to another condition that prevented him from living with his family since they also had a criminal record. On top of that, the man was required to pay fines and fees associated with his supervision.

“So what happened was they said, ‘Look, I have to choose between rent and paying my fines and fees.’ And the reality of it is, if I lose my housing, I’m not gonna be able to continue to abide by any of these conditions that you want me to abide by on supervision,” Haney said. “And unfortunately, instead of understanding that that was the situation, this individual’s probation officer found him in violation and incarcerated him.”

When the man was released, he had to look for a new job and housing, was given a longer probationary period with more stringent conditions and had higher penalties he was required to pay.

“And so each month, if he couldn’t pay, if they didn’t violate him, instead what they would do is extend his probation even longer, which meant he had that many more months of having to pay those fines and fees,” Haney said.

Courts were also able to revoke probation in favor of incarceration for squishier reasons — including indications that the defendant exhibited behavior that demonstrated it was likely they would commit a crime in the future, or in order to “vindicate the authority of the court.”

“The idea that a judge had indiscriminate authority to reincarcerate someone simply to ‘vindicate the authority of the court’ was one of the most troubling aspects of the Commonwealth’s probation system,” Haney said. “This essentially allowed people to be deprived of their liberty not for committing a new crime, but merely for disappointing or disobeying the court in some way.”

Act 44 attempts to address these issues by prohibiting incarceration for minor technical violations, instead reserving imprisonment for more serious breaches like the commission of another crime, failure to complete court-mandated treatment or actions that pose a threat to public safety.

When technical violations lead to incarceration, the law limits confinement to 14 days for a first technical violation, 30 days for a second, and whatever “sentencing alternatives available at the time of initial sentencing” for third and subsequent violations.

Overall, the law mandates that probation conditions be as least restrictive as possible, and tailored to the individual’s personal needs and circumstances.

“So given the option between something that is incredibly invasive and intrusive or something that accomplishes the same goals with re-entry and rehabilitation and accountability and public safety, you have to go with the one that’s least restrictive,” Haney said.

Rehabilitation and early termination

Act 44 also establishes a statewide standard for early termination of probation, intending to end repeated extensions that can keep people under supervision for years or even decades.

“That’s been a huge problem in Pennsylvania,” Haney said. “It’s one of the reasons why caseloads are so high for officers, which really impacts public safety. It’s one of the reasons why people can’t get the support that they need while they’re on supervision.”

While the law doesn’t impose caps on initial probation lengths (one reason why the Pennsylvania ACLU announced its opposition to Act 44), it does provide timelines for early termination based on their sentence — two years for misdemeanors, four years for felonies, or halfway through the probation sentence for either, whichever comes sooner. Those already on probation who are already past the minimum timeframe for applying for early termination will be eligible for their early termination review starting next year, after June 11, 2025. (The law does not interfere with people on probation’s ability to apply for early termination at any time, nor with early termination as provided through existing programs at the county level. Although people sentenced to probation for violent crimes, sexual crimes or stalking may not be eligible.)

At that point, the person under probation can be evaluated based on criteria that includes completing treatment or other rehabilitative programs, refraining from technical violations related to sexual assault or other threats to public violence, and paying or making a good-faith effort to pay full restitution owed to the victims.

“So if you’ve done a good job on supervision so far, you should know that no matter where you are in Pennsylvania, that at the two-year mark on misdemeanors, four-year mark on felonies or whatever is halfway into your term, you will get an opportunity to be off of supervision,” Haney said. “And on top of that, if you have engaged in some of the activities that we know reduce recidivism — so mainly education, work, certification, stuff like that — you can expedite that early termination.”

REFORM Alliance estimates that the law will help more than 120,000 people access early termination over the first five years of its implementation.

Protections against punishments for inability to pay

Finally, Act 44 codifies protections against incarceration or extending probation due to failure to pay fines or costs associated with supervision.

“So supervision, unfortunately — like many, many things in the criminal justice system —has a money-making quality to it,” Haney said. “People pay fines and fees on supervision. They often end up incurring more fines and fees and penalties than they were initially charged for at the beginning of the order.”

The law requires courts to make a good-faith evaluation of the defendant’s ability to pay, prohibiting further punishment unless it’s found that they have the ability to pay and are refusing to do so.

What this means for people already on probation or in prison

While REFORM Alliance estimates that the new law will help around 300,000 people over the first five years of its enactment, it’s less clear how it will impact people who are already in prison due to minor technical violations that should no longer lead to incarceration.

“We don’t know yet — nothing in the bill rights that wrong,” Haney said. “Many of the advocates that we worked with were in that situation. They had recently been incarcerated on a violation, and it was so unjust — like they were not incarcerated for committing a crime. It was for breaking a rule.”

Act 44 also doesn’t change the process by which parole officers decide to allege a violation. Still, it does attempt to eliminate any gray areas that previously allowed defendants to be punished by creating criteria for what is and isn’t a technical violation, and what the consequences of a violation can be.

Haney says anyone who anticipates they may be sentenced to probation should know that Act 44 requires individualized and narrowly tailored conditions, and should talk to their attorney about what that means for them. While the law doesn’t require that the conditions of probation for those already sentenced prior to Act 44 be changed, anyone facing a technical violation should benefit from the law’s new guardrails against incarceration for those violations.

Anyone who suspects they may be eligible for early termination, is facing a technical violation, or believes that their rights are being violated under the new law is advised to contact an attorney or legal aid.

They can also reach out to REFORM Alliance at, or another group that’s been involved with advocacy for Act 44, the Pennsylvania Safety Coalition.

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