Policing and Criminal Justice Reforms Pass, Elections Reforms On Hold As Legislature Recesses
The General Assembly unanimously passed two policing reform bills and a measure to remove barriers to professional licensing for individuals with certain unrelated prior convictions before recessing for the summer, but left work on elections reforms on the table as the President’s re-election campaign sued the state this week over changes made to procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 637, part of a series of criminal justice reform measures that LAMPa has supported, on July 1 and is expected to sign the policing reforms, part of of four bipartisan bills that were fast-tracked in the General Assembly in response to demands for an end to brutality and systemic racism that filled streets around the world in June. LAMPa advocates have urged lawmakers to get all four bills across the finish line before September and to keep going toward racial justice by taking a hard look at systemic racism throughout Pennsylvania.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved House Bill 1841, which would create a statewide database of police misconduct records and require employers to share employment information with a law enforcement agency conducting a background check of a job applicant. It also passed House Bill 1910, which aims to strengthen police training in interacting with people of diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, recognizing implicit bias, child abuse and and use of appropriate force. The bill would also improve access to mental health evaluations and require screenings for post traumatic stress disorder. Both await the governor’s signature.
Last week, the Senate sent two related bills to the House, which recessed before taking them up. Senate Bill 459 would require police departments to track and report all instances of police use of force to the state police, who would make an annual report to the attorney general and legislature, including when that force led to death or serious injury. The bill, as written, would not make that report available to the public, and does not require tracking of the race, gender or ethnicity of people against whom force is used. Senate Bill 1205 would require all local police departments to create and post online a use-of-force policy and would limit use of chokeholds, such as was used in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The police killing of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose near Pittsburgh in 2018 prompted the introduction of similar reform measures that failed to get consideration until Black representatives took the dais on June 8 to demand action.
“This pending legislation begins to address one form of violence against Black lives,” said LAMPa Director Tracey DePasquale. “Yet, the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and racism persists in every facet of American life. We see it in the disparities in food security, health, wealth, employment, incarceration, education, housing, access to voting, vulnerability to environmental threats and disasters and more. As the Senate hearings in June began to examine ways to undo the effects of racism in policing, we call on our leaders to address systemic racism throughout our commonwealth with intentionality, starting now — not waiting until September. That includes data collection, reporting, and transparency as well as impact analysis of current policies and future legislation by indicators including race, gender, ethnicity and wealth.”
Senate Bill 637, now Act 53, will require occupational licensure boards and commissions to apply one common set of rules when considering whether to deny, suspend, or revoke a license on the basis of a criminal conviction. It will amend the Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA) to require that boards only withhold a license for convictions which are directly related to the practice of the occupation, and that the boards consider the nature of the offense, the amount of time that has passed since conviction, evidence of the applicant’s fitness to practice the occupation, and other relevant factors prior to withholding a license.
More than 30 occupational fields require a government license or registration in Pennsylvania. Prior to the law’s passage, many people who have completed their sentences are hindered from reentering the workforce when boards deny licenses because of convictions unconnected to the practice of their desired profession. In addition to compounding the economic hardships faced by returning individuals, their families and communities, the barriers wasted tax dollars as state correctional institutions regularly train inmates in professional skills only for the person to be subsequently denied a license to practice.
“Along with other recent reforms to our criminal justice system in Pennsylvania, including Clean Slate legislation that just marked the second anniversary of its signing, we think Act 53 makes more than fiscal sense,” DePasquale said. “It is the right thing to do for those who are working to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign sued Pennsylvania and its 67 counties over implementation of the new voting procedures passed in bipartisan reforms last year, including mail-in ballot drop-off sites established in some counties in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature has begun to examine possible elections systems improvements in light of challenges with the June 2 primary, including delays in results because some counties were overwhelmed by mail-in ballots and the reduction of in-person polling sites also related to COVID. It is possible that the House, under the leadership of new Speaker Bryan Cutler since the June 15 resignation of Rep. Mike Turzai, could return after the July 4 holiday to address elections concerns and vote on policing reform bills sent over by the Senate June 24.