Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 5, 2024
Gov. Josh Shapiro signed more than 30 bills into law last month as the General Assembly passed a torrent of legislation pent up by budget negotiations that had been stalled since July.
Many of those laws took effect immediately or will be in force starting early this year. While some make esoteric changes to the administration of state government, many have the potential to affect the daily lives of Pennsylvania residents.
Amid the fanfare over the much-touted legislative priorities passed with the six-month-overdue state budget, some important bills were pushed out of the spotlight. Here’s a rundown of a handful of new state laws that didn’t get the attention they deserve.
Act 48, Kinship care
In child custody cases, family members and close family friends who support children in a time of crisis have historically in Pennsylvania not had a right to voice their opinions in court on what is best for the children.
Passed unanimously in the state House and Senate as House Bill 1058, a new addition to the Judicial Code would require courts handling child custody matters to solicit input from those involved in kinship care – such as grandparents or aunts and uncles – about how best to provide for a child’s welfare.
Rep. Rick Krajewski (D-Philadelphia) noted after the bill passed the Senate last month that while living with family or other trusted adults has been shown to minimize trauma and increase positive outcomes, fewer than 42% of children receiving care in the state are placed in such homes.
“No child should be unnecessarily placed in a county youth agency,” Krajewski said in a statement as the bill headed to Shapiro’s desk last month. It is set to take effect Feb. 12.
Act 38, Speed cameras
A three-year pilot program allowing the use of automatic speed limit enforcement in highway work zones and along Philadelphia’s infamously dangerous Roosevelt Boulevard produced measurable improvements in safety, state transportation officials told a Senate committee in September.
Act 38 makes the program permanent and would expand the use of speed cameras to five additional highways in Philadelphia. It also creates a pilot program to allow speed camera enforcement of school zone speed limits.
The new law, which took effect immediately when Shapiro signed it Dec. 14, does provide some amnesty for lead-footed drivers. It resets the number of prior offenses to zero for drivers who received tickets under the pilot program, creates a 15-day buffer between the mailing date of a first-offense ticket and a subsequent violation and requires speed cameras and speed limits to be clearly signposted.
Act 41, Porch piracy
The theft of Amazon packages and other deliveries from front stoops and porches became so prevalent in the last decade that a name for a new type of criminal activity entered the lexicon: Porch piracy.
While theft is already a crime, Act 41 creates a new offense of theft of mail with enhanced penalties for offenders, including a third-degree felony punishable by up to seven years in prison for repeat offenders convicted of stealing packages worth more than $2,000. The law takes effect Feb. 12.
Act 26, Ending bans on religious clothing in schools
A century-old law – sought by the Klu Klux Klan to stop Catholic teachers from displaying their religion in the classroom – barred public school employees from wearing any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicative of their faith.
Act 26 repeals that law following a 2003 federal court decision siding with an Indiana County teacher who was fired for refusing to conceal a small cross on a necklace. Every other state legislature has removed the ban from its school code. Pennsylvania will be the final state to eliminate the ban when the repeal takes effect Sunday, more than 20 years after it was found to be unconstitutional.
Act 31, Informed consent for pelvic exams
Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) proposed legislation to end the practice of allowing medical students to perform pelvic and rectal examinations on patients who are under general anesthesia without prior consent after receiving a letter from a constituent.
The woman, who had recently undergone surgery, was shocked and troubled to learn that it was a common practice and might have happened to her. Act 31 requires hospitals and other medical facilities to obtain prior informed consent before such teaching procedures and creates penalties for institutions that violate the law, which takes effect Jan. 20.
Act 47, Dignity for incarcerated women
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act establishes protections, such as prohibiting shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant individuals and providing trauma-informed training for corrections officers who interact with pregnant inmates, among other measures.
The law, passed by state Reps. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia), Mike Jones (R-York), and Tina Davis (D-Bucks), takes effect June 12.
Act 54, Racist and unlawful deed restrictions
Rep. Justin Fleming (D-Dauphin) introduced legislation that allows property owners to file papers with county recorders of deeds to reject racist restrictions on who may live in a home after friends were horrified to discover the deed for their new home contained such language.
Although restrictive covenants on the basis of race or religion were struck down as unenforceable more than 75 years ago, they remain in thousands of property records and can’t be removed because records of ownership accumulate over time.
Fleming’s legislation, which became effective immediately on Dec. 14, would allow homeowners to file a form in their county’s records office to state that they reject and are not associated with such restrictions.
Act 36, Clean Slate 3.0
Since 2018, Pennsylvania has led the nation in creating second chances for people convicted of low-level non-violent crimes by allowing their criminal records to be sealed after 10 years without another conviction.
Clean Slate 3.0, the third expansion of the law, allows people convicted of low-level, non-violent drug felonies to have their records sealed after 10 years without another conviction, and shortens the period to have misdemeanor and summary offense records sealed to seven years.
Act 44, Probation reform
When Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill received a four-year prison sentence for violating his probation in a decade-old case by popping a wheelie on a dirtbike, it ignited a movement for probation reform across the country.
Pennsylvania’s answer to the outcry over Mill’s case, aims to prevent probationers from becoming trapped on a treadmill of extended terms of probation by establishing standard lengths and requiring judges to make individualized assessments of people before them.
Some criminal justice reform advocates have been critical of the legislation, saying that they were not included in drafting the language and that many of their concerns are not addressed. The law takes effect June 12.
Act 18, Dog law modernization
Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement has struggled to cover its basic operating expenses, such as salaries for its dog wardens, and even required a funding transfer in 2022 from the Department of Agriculture to maintain minimum operations.
Act 18, signed in October by Shapiro, gradually increases dog license fees from $5 to $10 over the next three years and increases the cost of lifetime licenses from $30 to $49. The law includes discounts for senior citizens and also increases kennel fees by 25% for the first time in 60 years.
The fee increases are necessary legislative supporters and advocates have said, to create a self-sustaining state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which relies on dog license fees to fund its operations. The law takes effect Jan. 21.
Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: email@example.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.