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House of Representatives
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session

MEMORANDUM

Posted: June 21, 2021 02:19 PM
From: Representative Natalie Mihalek and Rep. Wendi Thomas, Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, Rep. Shelby Labs, Rep. Meghan Schroeder
To: All House members
Subject: Safer Pennsylvania Act
 
The last year has seen unprecedented burdens on Pennsylvania families and communities. These pressures have often hit our most vulnerable populations the hardest - including victims of violent crime - and it is our responsibility to ensure they are protected and supported. We must ensure that when people experience a violent crime they are able to access programs, services, and supports that address their trauma and help them heal, and that they are empowered to make the decision to prioritize their healing and recovery in the aftermath of a violent crime. Too often, victims are unable to navigate complex rules and restrictions or are tripped up by regulations that keep them from accessing critical supports like victim compensation when they need them most. We must ensure that victims of violent crime are empowered to do what is best for them, their families, and their healing after victimization.
 
We must also ensure that our criminal justice system is best equipped to reduce recidivism and increase public safety outcomes for the vast majority of people incarcerated or under supervision and will return home to their family and community. Research shows that educational programs are among the most effective public safety interventions we have at our disposal. Pennsylvania has been a leader in developing these programs and there is more we can do to ensure these programs and the public safety benefits they provide are maximized. Analyzing and measuring the prevalence of learning disabilities among people entering probation and prison can build a foundation for a next generation of policies to ensure all people are able to participate in and benefit from correctional education. Strengthening incentives through earned education credits for people who do participate in and complete these proven programs will allow for a leaner, more targeted corrections system, better safety outcomes, and less crime.
 
The six pieces of legislation outlined below will protect victims of crime and improve public safety outcomes for all our Commonwealth residents. Please join me in co-sponsoring them. 
 



Document #1

Introduced as HB2027

Description: Victims of Violence Employment Leave Act (Wendi Thomas)
    
At least 26 states have laws to ensure that certain survivors can take leave from work to recover or to make plans for safety. Our state has yet to act to provide these protections statewide. 
 
According to advocacy groups, victims of violent crime, including immediate family members of those seriously injured or killed in a crime, often struggle to return to work following a crime. Many of these victims are compelled to take off work to seek medical attention, obtain counseling services, secure a restraining order against their abuser, or relocate to a safer shelter. Studies find that financial stress following a violent crime can increase a survivor’s risk of long term post-traumatic stress disorder.
 
To ensure that victims are not unfairly punished by their employer for taking reasonable and necessary actions in response to violent crime, I intend to introduce the Victims of Violence Employment Leave Act in the near future.
 
This Act will authorize victims of violent crime and their immediate family members to take unpaid leave from work for any of the reasons set forth in the Act, including the victim's need to seek medical attention or obtain services from a victim services provider, or the need to grieve the loss of a loved one killed in a homicide.
 
If a victim is absent for more than three days, employers are permitted to request copies of police reports, medical or mental health records or other evidence demonstrating that the employee is a victim of a violent crime and is, therefore, entitled to protections under the Act. Any such documentation provided to an employer must be retained in the strictest confidence by the employer unless disclosure is otherwise required by applicable law.
 
This legislation will also require employers to maintain health insurance coverage for the duration of the leave at the same level and under the same conditions that would have been provided if the victim's employment had not been interrupted by the leave.
 
 

Document #2

Introduced as HB2029

Description: Victims of Violence Landlord-Tenant Act (Tracy Pennycuick)
 
Victims of violent crimes and their loved ones often feel compelled to relocate in order to be safe from harm. Staying in the home may compound a victim’s trauma, or expose the victim and their family to further violence.  One study found that more than 8 in 10 survivors of violent crime reported wanting assistance obtaining safe housing following the crime.
 
Under current law, victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking can take advantage of the Commonwealth's Address Confidentiality Program, which provides victims with an alternate mailing address to keep their actual home address out of public records where their perpetrator may learn their location. Victims of all violent crimes are eligible for support with limited relocation expenses (up to $1,000) through the Victims Compensation and Assistance Program. Unfortunately, many victims remain bound by lease agreements which commonly contain provisions that restrict a tenant's ability to prematurely terminate the lease.
 
Terminating a lease early can permanently injure a victim’s ability to access housing, can lead to costly and stressful legal issues, and in certain circumstances can mark a person’s credit score, leading to a host of lasting financial issues. Without protection, survivors of violent crimes are forced to choose between the long-term financial consequences of terminating a lease early, and their safety and wellbeing.
 
To protect victims of violent crime who are faced with this perilous dilemma, I intend to introduce legislation that will permit individuals to lawfully terminate residential leases when necessary as a result of the crime. The victim is required to provide notice to the landlord of the intention to relocate, which may not occur until at least 15 days after such notice was given.
   
If a victim wishes to remain in the home but fears for their safety, the victim can request that the landlord change the locks. Within 24 hours of receiving notice, the landlord must change the locks or other security devices that provide access to the victim's dwelling to provide additional safety measures pending relocation. The legislation will also protect victims from rent increases or a landlord’s refusal to rent due to their status as a victim or because the victim relocated or requested a lock change following the crime. 
 
With this legislation, victims will be afforded the life-saving opportunity of escaping violence without the threat of the financial or other legal consequences attendant to terminating a lease agreement.
 
 

Document #3

Introduced as HB2031

Description: Victims of Violence Emergency Relocation Act (Shelby Labs)
 
In 2018, the General Assembly approved Act 148, which provided protection to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors who are tenants of a county housing authority and need to relocate. Under the existing law, eligible tenants may request relocation, and the local housing authority provides one of the following to tenants who are eligible victims: 1) relocation to another unit; 2) a housing choice voucher; 3) assistance with identifying other housing providers which may have safe & available units; 4) assistance contacting local organizations that offer assistance to victims. 
 
I intend to introduce legislation that would expand these protections to victims of other types of violent crimes, their immediate family or household members, and witnesses to violent crime who are threatened with further violence. This legislation would also apply if the crime occurred within 180-days of the tenant requesting relocation, increasing from 90-days under current law.
 
Victims of violent crimes and their loved ones often need to relocate in order to get to safety and recover from trauma. One study found that more than 8 in 10 survivors of all types of violent crime reported wanting assistance obtaining safe housing following the crime. This legislation will ensure that Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable low-income survivors receive the support they need to remain safely housed following a crime.
 
 

Document #4

Introduced as HB2028

Description: Victims of Violence Compensation Act (Natalie Mihalek)
 
Victims of violent crime often need both time and support to recover and ensure their safety after victimization. Providing for the needs of crime victims is an essential part of the criminal justice system. Our legislation will ensure all victims understand their important role in the system and receive any compensation which they are owed.
 
I intend to introduce legislation that would update the Crime Victims Act to ensure more victims receive the help they need and know their rights. Improvements in the bill include changes to the Victims Compensation and Assistance Program that extend the time limit for victims to file from two to five years, eliminate the current 72 hour time limit for reporting crimes to authorities and also allow alternative forms of reporting to qualify, and ensure that victims are not unnecessarily disqualified from this critical support.
 
This legislation builds on the work undertaken by the bipartisan, interbranch Justice Reinvestment Working (JRI) Group under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) that resulted in SB 502 in the 2019-2020 legislative session.
 
 

Document #5

Introduced as HB2030

Description: Education Access and Incentivization In Corrections Act (Natalie Mihalek)
 
Studies consistently show that education programs are among the most effective interventions to reduce recidivism and improve public safety outcomes after release from prison. Specifically, a meta-analysis of correctional education programs conducted by the RAND Corporation found that (a) people who participated in correctional education programs had 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who did not, and (b) those who participated in correctional education had 13% higher chances of getting a job after incarceration than those who did not. For participants in vocational training, the odds were 28% higher than those who did not.
 
Researchers also estimate that a significant number of people in prison - anywhere from 30%–50% of the adult prison population - have a learning disability like dyslexia. People with these learning differences experience a range of challenges, including deficits in oral and reading comprehension, integration of information, and coordination, all of which impede ability to learn - especially when the problem has gone unrecognized and undiagnosed. However, with the right diagnosis and appropriate accommodations in place, people with learning disabilities can achieve their full potential.
 
I intend to introduce legislation that builds on Pennsylvania’s commitment to education in our correctional system as a smart, proven public safety strategy. The legislation would establish two pilot programs to explore learning disability screening tools to assess the need for intervention and support services for people entering the criminal justice system - both at the probation level and at intake to prison. The pilot programs will operate over the course of two years, during which the County Adult Probation and Parole Advisory Committee and the Department of Corrections would plan, operate and evaluate the programs. Each pilot program will result in an evaluation and report outlining recommendations regarding the provision of learning disability support services for each respective population.
 
This legislation would also ensure that educational programming in Pennsylvania is accompanied with stronger incentives for participation and successful program completion through the establishment of earned educational credits. The legislation would allow people who participate in and complete educational programs while in prison to earn education credits that count toward their sentence and can accelerate parole consideration.
 
 

Document #6

Introduced as HB2032

Description: Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act (Meghan Schroeder)
 
Last session, the General Assembly enacted by law a number of critical rights for sexual assault victims within the Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act.  Among them was the right for an assault victim to remain anonymous when seeking care through a forensic rape exam while still having the evidence of that assault collected, preserved, and tested.  Remaining anonymous is important to many victims of sexual violence, who may fear retaliation, further harm, or an invasion of their privacy and safety after an assault.  At the time of evidence collection, there are many decisions that may feel overwhelming to victims of sexual assault, who have just survived a traumatic event. 
 
It has come to my attention, however, that the laudable anonymous reporting provisions of the Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act may be in conflict with mandatory crime reporting requirements of healthcare professionals.  This law requires healthcare providers to report identifying information to law enforcement when victims of crime present to the hospital for care.  Healthcare providers, including forensic nurses, who provide care to victims through the forensic rape exam, have expressed concerns about this conflict – hoping to care for victims while also remaining compliant with their obligations under the law.
 
I will shortly be introducing a bill that resolves this conflict and creates an exception to reporting identifying information specifically in sexual assault cases where victims wish to remain anonymous. Please join me in sponsoring this legislation to ensure that victims receive the healthcare they need and are given a critical measure of control over when and how they collect evidence of the assaults committed against them.