REFORM Alliance — an organization founded and co-chaired by Meek Mill, Jay-Z, 76ers partner Michael Rubin and CNN host Van Jones — came to Penn State on Sept. 15 to discuss its commitment to eradicating laws and injustices against reformed inmates in the United States.
REFORM Alliance made its first stop at Webster's Cafe as part of its campaign tour of Pennsylvania.
The group is actively looking for ways to “pass probation bills at the state level, use media to amplify the need for comprehensive reform and build an inclusive, bipartisan alliance of leaders who share a vision for ambitiously and efficiently transforming the criminal system,” according to its mission statement.
The bills that REFORM Alliance would like to see passed are House Bill 1555 and Senate Bill 14, both of which would significantly reduce the number of those recently released under probation and allow the state to invest more money into rehabilitation and reentry into society versus reincarceration.
To begin the panel discussion at Webster's, campaign manager Nick Pressley spoke on exactly what the group wants out of the Pennsylvania legislature.
“Our probation act consists of a couple of bills that are working their way through the Pennsylvania Assembly,” Pressley said. “The major components of this act would include capping the amount of time you can put on probation, giving people who are on probation earned time and incentivising completing your probation without issue, adding due process issues for those on probation, changing the way that technical violations are treated in the Pennsylvania probation system.”
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Some of those in the panel discussion were former inmates themselves, and spoke about how unfair they believe the probation system can be to those trying to better their lives.
“From personal experience and from talking to others, it seems that the system is set up to get you,” Mark Frailey, co-chair of the Pennsylvania Prison Society's Centre County chapter, said. “You would think that the probation system would be there to make sure you don’t go back to jail, but they set you up for failure.”
Others spoke about how even though probation officers are seen as those who are responsible for the well-being of former inmates and hold their fate in their hands, many of them are forced to take several cases, and are not able to pay close attention to each person.
“If your parole officer is not equipped to deal with you because their caseload is overflowing, you’re just another number to them,” Divine Lipscomb, founder of Corrective Gentlemen, said. “They never wonder why you miss curfew, or why you smoked weed. They don’t ask. It’s because you spend 10 days in county and you’re traumatized. The treatment people receive inside of a facility is dehumanizing.”
Pennsylvania public officials, Republican and Democrats alike, agreed that reform instead of punishment works best in society and can help turn lives around.
“We all have to work together and realize that to fix these problems, we have to put aside Democratic and Republican issues. This affects all of our society,” Republican Centre County Commissioner Steve Dershem said.
“We need to come up with a solution to make sure that when people are out of incarceration and returning back into society, that they have those tools to be successful — whether that be mental health support, educational support or workplace support," Dershem said. "We can’t continue to incarcerate our way out of these problems."