Kinsey seeks solutions for problems in Pa. prison system

HARRISBURG, Jan. 26 – State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Phila., held a news conference today with House and Senate colleagues and prison-reform advocates to discuss legislation to help address systemic problems in Pennsylvania’s prison system.

Kinsey was joined by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Phila., House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Phila., state Reps. Amen Brown, Danilo Burgos, Joe Hohenstein, Darisha Parker and Brian Sims, all D-Phila.; Tim Briggs, Napoleon Nelson, Ben Sanchez and Joe Webster, all D-Montgomery; Bob Brooks, R-Westmoreland/Allegheny; Gina Curry, D-Delaware; Manuel Guzman, D-Berks; Dianne Herrin, D-Chester; Carol Hill-Evans, D-York; Patty Kim, D-Dauphin; Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny; Maureen Madden, D-Monroe; Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester/Montgomery; and Regina Young, D-Delaware/Phila.; along with state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Phila. and Anton Andrew from PA Prison Society.

“Right now, in Pennsylvania and the entire United States, we have a prison system that does not work,” Kinsey said. “We must pass legislation to reform this system, so that those incarcerated have a chance to live dignified lives when they’re serving their sentence and when they’ve completed it.”

The lawmakers are seeking enactment of several bills that would improve the prison system for incarcerated people and their families as well as save taxpayer dollars, including:

Probation and Parole Reform: Earned Compliance Credits. This legislation would create Earned Compliance Credits, which would reduce the time that low-risk, non-violent offenders would be on active supervision. For each month in compliance, their supervision time would be reduced by 15 days. Once all restitution, fines, and fees have been paid, the court or releasing authority would be able to reduce the period of supervision in proportion to the total amount of credits earned. People who do not possess the financial ability to pay the restitution, fines, and fees will have them waived, if satisfying all other requirements.

“Warehousing Pennsylvanians for excessively long sentences have been shown to have absolutely no deterring effect on crime,” Kinkead said. “Rather than caging people who have aged out of crime or who pose no threat to public safety, we should be investing in reducing recidivism by treating inmates with dignity and rewarding good behavior. I fully support these bills and look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to remind people everywhere that committing a crime does not make a person inherently unworthy of human compassion.”

SCI Nutritional Health Study. This legislation would require the Joint State Government Commission to study SCI’s nutritional value of food and incarcerated peoples’ health conditions. The commission would examine sources of calcium, fruits, grains, protein and vegetables that are provided with each meal. Furthermore, the number of calories provided over the course of three meals per day would be examined. Moreover, the commission would study the medical and physical health of incarcerated individuals, as well as the prevalence of illness and disease among incarcerated individuals.

Medical Parole and Early Release of Aging and Infirm Inmates (co-authored with Burgos). This legislation will be introduced in the form of a two-bill package. The first bill would establish a medical parole program for non-violent, older inmates who have medically debilitating or terminal ailments, as well as an early release program that would allow for the early release of non-violent inmates who are 60 or older or who have served 20 years of their sentence. The second bill would create a medical parole program for inmates who are 60 or older and who have a terminal illness. Those eligible under the legislation would be allowed to petition the Pennsylvania Parole Board for medical parole or early release, and the board would have full discretion to accept or reject these petitions.

“It is very important that our older inmates have the option of medical parole,” Burgos said. “We must allow those who have served their time for non-violent crimes the opportunity to leave prison, get the medical help they need and spend the remaining years of their life in their communities.”

“I support legislation that would expand the possibility of parole to those who are in poor health because of a terminal or debilitating illness or due to their age,” Shusterman said. “We have a mass incarceration problem in Pennsylvania, and our current system makes it impossible for an inmate to qualify for compassionate release. These are inmates who no longer pose any threat to our society, and we should allow them to go home.”

Alternatives to Arrest. This legislation would require that instead of immediately arresting an individual for committing a low-level offense which is subject to arrest without a warrant, an officer must first issue a warning or citation with a command to cease the illegal activity in question. Only if the officer’s command is ignored could the officer then arrest the individual. This would save law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the individual both time and money, and it would help to lower incarceration rates around the state, lessening the burdens on overcrowded prisons and jails.

“This legislation would offer a safer alternative to low-level arrests, which unduly place law enforcement officers at a higher risk despite the fact the work being done is for the least serious crimes,” Kim said. “Research informs us people of color and people living in poverty are disproportionately affected by arrests and the economic burden it creates, and this bill would address that issue for Pennsylvania’s least significant crimes. It would also save time, services and valuable resources in the criminal justice system, which ultimately would benefit the public and taxpayers.”  

Supporting Our Veterans Exiting Incarceration. (co-authored with Guzman) This legislation would require that veterans who are incarcerated in a State Correctional Institution (SCI) be given a veterans benefits briefing before they are released, including state and federal benefits available to the veteran and their family as well as how to access and apply for them.

Webster said, “Transitioning from military to civilian life can be extremely difficult for those who have served this great nation. It is even more difficult for those who have found themselves incarcerated. Ensuring those who served our nation have access to reliable information regarding their benefits upon their release is a commonsense initiative that provides a foundation for these veterans to begin turning their lives around and, once again, become thriving and productive members of our commonwealth.”

Inmate Visitation Rights. This legislation would require all state prisons and county jails to provide inmates with a minimum of two in-person visits per week. Each visit would be required to last for at least one hour and a minimum of three people would be allowed to attend each visit.   Furthermore, these new standards for visitation would not limit the use of video visitation which is provided in addition to the in-person visits. This in-person visitation requirement would provide inmates with the social connection they need, improving the well-being of the incarcerated population and decreasing recidivism once individuals are released.   

Harris, who has spearheaded efforts on clean-slate laws, supports continued push towards reform.

Harris said, “We need to have a serious conversation about what fairness and justice means in Pennsylvania. I appreciate Representative Kinsey and my colleagues bringing this issue to the forefront and turning the focus away from retributive justice and toward rehabilitative and restorative justice.”

Briggs, Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the changes being suggested would lead to positive outcomes for everyone involved in PA’s criminal justice system.

“It’s time for Pennsylvania to make criminal justice reform a priority,” Briggs said. “The legislation introduced by Representative Kinsey would provide a number of positive changes in Pennsylvania, including improve working conditions for law enforcement officers, lessen the burden on state agencies, support veterans, improve prisoner visitation and ensure humane treatment for terminally ill people. I stand with lawmakers attempting to make our state safer through treatment, rehabilitation and diversion programs – which continue to be supported by research findings and groups like the bipartisan interbranch Juvenile Justice Task Force.”

Hohenstein said he has worked with many in the criminal justice system firsthand as an attorney.

"There's no question that many aspects of our criminal legal system are in dire need of an overhaul, “Hohenstein said. "That is especially so when it comes to how prisons in Pennsylvania operate. One thing that deserves special attention is treating incarcerated people with dignity, and in a way that will prepare them for a return to society. As an attorney who often visited my clients when they were incarcerated and seeing firsthand the positive impact that human interaction had for those people, I know that visitation is one aspect of prison reform in need of attention.

"I was proud to stand with my colleagues and speak out about the issue of prison reform, since it affects too many people throughout our commonwealth," Hohenstein added. "Many of my colleagues in the state House have put forth legislation to improve our broken system, and I stand with them in our collective commitment to create a more just system."

Brown said he is excited to see important conversations about this issue being had.

“I’m proud to take part in this much needed conversation about criminal justice and prison reform,” Brown said. “These reforms are long overdue, and we need to continue to have conversations like this so that we can carry out legislative efforts that will provide actual relief.”

Street said he is proud to join Kinsey in offering policies that are both morally and fiscally sound.

“The rights of the incarcerated do not disappear behind the prison walls. From the health of the geriatric and aging, to visitation rights or ensuring the successful reintegration into society of those who have redeemed themselves, as government it falls to us to maintain the dignity of the incarcerated while being good stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars,” Street said. “I’m proud to offer legislation to bring relief to geriatric, aging and the terminally ill and join Representative Kinsey in offering policy that is both morally and fiscally sound.”

Andrew said he greatly appreciates everyone who is standing up for the prison reform proposition.

“The more than 62,000 people incarcerated across the commonwealth are amongst our most invisible, neglected and traumatized Pennsylvanians,” Andrew said. “I applaud who joined in presenting the bills for standing up for the proposition that everyone, regardless of commission of a crime, past mistakes or poverty, is entitled to a life of dignity.”

Kinsey said he is offering citizens the chance to “sponsor” the legislative package via a form on his website:

You can watch the entire press conference here: Prison Reform Package Press Conference - YouTube