Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:
Poor condition of many state dams should worry every Pennsylvanian
The York Dispatch
Infrastructure isn’t the most scintillating topic.
For most folks, it probably rates somewhere between researching tax deductions and discussing life insurance. Just like those two topics, however, you ignore infrastructure issues at your own risk.
That’s why every Pennsylvanian, including the 450,000 folks in York County, should be more than a little concerned about a recent Associated Press report on the condition of the state’s nearly 3,400 dams.
Here’s a quick synopsis. An alarmingly high number of those dams are not in good shape. That’s according to the Dam Safety Division for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In fact, about 740 are deemed “high hazard,” meaning a structural failure is likely to lead to loss of human life. That more than 20% of the state’s dams. Most of the high-hazard dams are privately owned and more than half are more than 50 years old. Some were even built in the early 19th century.
The agency’s greatest concern, however, is for a group of 145 dams that are rated, in data supplied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as both high hazard and in either poor or unsatisfactory condition.
Of course, this is not just a Pennsylvania problem. A two-year investigation by the AP identified 1,688 dams nationwide that are rated as high hazard and are deemed to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition.
Despite those rather frightening numbers, most folks take a rather lackadaisical attitude about the issue.
Rich Reisinger, the chief of the Pennsylvania Dam Safety Division, probably put it best when he said most state residents likely think: “The dam’s been there 100 years. It’ll be there 100 more.”
That’s a very dangerous outlook. Such a lack of vigilance could lead to millions of dollars of property damage and dozens, hundreds or even thousands of lost lives.
It’s happened before. The infamous 1889 Johnstown flood killed 2,200 people. The disaster was blamed on poor maintenance on the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River, sending a 36-foot wall of water roaring into a populated area at 40 mph.
As recently as 1977, the Laurel Run Dam outside Johnstown failed, killing 40 people.
So, it’s clear, something must be done now to ensure such tragedies don’t happen again.
In Pennsylvania, there’s both good news and bad news on that front.
The state’s dam safety program has a budget that increased from $2.6 million in 2010 — the third most in the country — to $2.8 million last year, the second-most. That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, the program has 28 dam-safety personnel, down slightly from 30 a decade ago. That’s the bad news.
There have been efforts to mitigate the threat from high-risk dams. Under a decade-old program known as H2O PA, the state has issued 19 grants for unsafe high-hazard dams, funding projects valued at a total of $50 million. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s infrastructure proposal would steer additional grant money to upgrade dams.
That money must be approved and spent. Yes, spending taxpayer money is never a popular topic for politicians, but our representatives have a simple choice.
They can spend a little for prevention and safety now, or pay a whole lot more later, in both property damage and, much more importantly, lost lives.
We need to make a serious commitment to fix this issue. A ounce of prevention now may save us a pound of cure in the future.
Tragedy a too-costly lesson about mental health treatment access
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Even by Philadelphia’s standards, the Oct. 29 killing of Janet Woodson, her two young sons, and her husband in their Cedar Park home was a horrific crime. The charging of her eldest son, Maurice Louis, with four counts of murder deepened the city’s grief. But after the Inquirer reported that Janet Woodson brought Louis, who struggled with addiction and other mental health issues, to a crisis center the night before she died — and had to take him home without the help he needed — the tragedy looks more like a travesty. And it suggests how easily a profoundly disturbed human being in desperate need of help can simply slip through the cracks in a system that clearly is not up to the many tasks we ask it to perform.
There are plenty of questions, particularly about how the crisis center of Mercy Fitzgerald Medical Center handled the case, and why the center had been able to continue operating despite having flunked successive state inspections since 2016.
But this heartbreaking case mostly demands that we do more than point fingers, express shock, or offer sympathy. It requires leaders to do more than nod to mental illness as they inevitably do after mass slayings. It requires all of us to push for affordable and accessible treatment for depression, behavioral disorders, and serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, with which Louis previously had been diagnosed.
In recent years, gun violence and opioid addiction have dominated the conversation about mental illness, but the fact is, more than 47 million American adults experienced a mental health disorder in 2018. While we may have come a long way from stigmatizing and institutionalizing the mentally ill -- lately, even Philly police and fire officials and Philly teachers are speaking out about the value of counseling -- stigma remains, which encourages silence around the issue. Coupled with failures in the health care system, that silence is dangerous.
Compounding the danger is lack of access. An alliance of health care providers, including the American Psychiatric Association, are among those sounding the alarm about record rates of suicide and drug-related deaths, a crisis made worse by inadequate access to mental health care.
People who need help don’t know where, or how, to look for it: A 2018 study by a nonprofit provider of treatment concluded that access — for example, merely being able to get an appointment — continues to be a barrier. In-patient care is even more difficult; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently cited accelerated closure of state psychiatric hospitals as a continuing problem. In Pennsylvania, public spending on mental health services has not gotten an appreciable boost in a decade. As recent developments in addiction treatment demonstrate, the mental health field needs to evolve as well. But innovative new approaches ought not be limited only to those with gold-plated private insurance coverage.
The tragic ending aside, Janet Woodson and her family struggled with and suffered through a crisis that far too many families live with. We must do better to acknowledge this suffering, and demand more attention and resources to mental health -- beyond lip service.
Write-in votes shouldn’t be wasted
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Your vote is a valuable commodity. It’s the difference between being a victim or a volunteer. It is participation. It is involvement.
And that’s all serious business. Voting for Porky Pig? That’s really not.
In every election, there are people who exercise another right: the ability to disregard the options on the printed ballot and submit their own.
These are the write-in votes. Sometimes they are legitimate campaigns by people whose interest in a position didn’t line up with the dates in the primary. Sometime someone who didn’t make the ballot on one ticket in the spring tries to engage both sides to pull out a win in the fall.
Then there are the grassroots write-ins. Voters might not like the options on the ballot and decide to write in a legitimate individual to fill the seat.
But then there are the situations like in North Irwin Borough this month.
There were 33 write-in ballots for council in the Nov. 5 election. One went to that cartoon pig. One went to Jesus H. Christ. Others were more vague. “Somebody With A Brain” could be anyone. “My Left Foot” might be, well, anybody’s left foot.
So it might seem like these write-ins were squandering that precious vote. They weren’t.
No one in North Irwin was running for the three open seats on the ballot. The voters had no options to select, making the weird suggestions akin to protest votes crying out for anyone — animated, celestial or otherwise — to step up to the plate.
What wasted these votes wasn’t a campy sense of humor. It was the lack of engagement. More people must participate in government for government to work. We can’t demand people vote but not give them candidates to choose.
But we can ask if a place like North Irwin — population around 800, with 530 voters — is viable as a unit of government. Local control is all well and good, but it’s not entirely surprising that a pool of 530 people failed to yield an interested candidate for council.
In other communities, a similar lack of people to fill vital offices has prefaced consolidation with other municipalities. When South Philipsburg in Centre County could no longer field a council in its borough of about 400, it folded into Rush Township in 2007.
If voting is our basic right and baseline responsibility, running for local office is leveling up, taking the next step to make our communities what we want them to be. That is important and it is absolutely necessary.
That’s all, folks.
Prison oversight group has valid reason to question how inmate deaths are classified in Pennsylvania
Ty'rique Riley didn’t die from being beaten in Dauphin County Prison, as many of his supporters feared after seeing pictures of his bruised body. That was the conclusion of Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick, who determined the 21-year-old died of something even more puzzling -- natural causes.
A healthy young man is not supposed to die of natural causes. So even after the coroner’s presentation, a nagging question remained: could his death have been prevented? If he had gotten medical care sooner, would he have lived?
It’s a question at the heart of the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s mission, and the reason it was founded more than 100 years ago – to help protect people behind bars and to advocate for their humane treatment.
According to Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, most deaths in state and county facilities are from suicide or from the puzzling “natural causes.” That doesn’t make a lot of sense to her, either.
“Deaths are frequently reported as natural causes,” said Shubik-Richards, “but they’re all preventable.”
She says her organization is taking a closer look at data from inmate deaths and their classification in Pennsylvania to focus a spotlight on the label “natural causes,” and will provide a report on the results of its investigation. It also is delving into data on the how’s and why’s of suicide in Pennsylvania prisons, another disturbing trend that the organization says has increased in recent years.
To Pennsylvania’s credit, the Pennsylvania Prison Society is one of few officially sanctioned organizations in the nation with a mandate to protect the rights of incarcerated people. Only New York and Illinois have such official organizations to regularly monitor the status of prisoners and respond to their pleas for help.
Their most important mission is preventing prisoner abuse and death.
Deaths of inmates in Pennsylvania are classified in four categories: homicide, suicide, accidental or natural. But the Pennsylvania Prison Society is concerned that classifying deaths as from natural causes or even suicide masks deeper issues about how inmates are treated.
In a recent case in Blair County, a prisoner asked to see a doctor, Shubik-Richards noted, but instead of getting him to a hospital, he was given a Tylenol. When he died, the report said it was from “natural causes.”
Stopping preventable deaths in prison is one of the organization’s primary missions. But there’s an even bigger one -- reducing the number of people put behind bars in the first place.
Pennsylvania’s prison population has increased 850 percent in the last 40 years, according to the group. Forty years ago, Pennsylvania had seven prisons. Today there are 25.
Closer to home, Pennsylvania’s county jail population rose by more than 450 percent over the last 40 years, despite the population growing by 7.8 percent.
Half of the state’s prisoners are black, although only 11 percent of the state’s’ population is black. Black men account for 38.1 percent of the county jail population.
Hispanic prisoners make up 11.1 percent of PA’s county jail population, but 6.8 percent of the state’s population.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society says “over-policing” in black and brown communities is one of the main causes of the disproportionate incarceration rates. To make matters worse, many inmates haven’t been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t make bail, leading taxpayers to pay for their upkeep until their cases are tried.
According to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, taxpayers spend more than $2.4 billion a year to keep people behind bars. On any given day, more than 80,000 Pennsylvanians are incarcerated.
Think about it. It costs $42,000 to keep someone behind bars in Pennsylvania and $16,000 to send them to a state college for a year.
Too many lives are being lost by throwing people into jail instead of seeking ways to keep them contributing members of society. And Shubik-Richards contends there are other serious problems with Pennsylvania’s criminal code, including the amount of time someone on probation stays under supervision – another drain on taxpayer dollars.
“PA is one of few states where people can be under community supervision for 10-20 years, “ Shubik-Richards says. “There need to be caps on community supervision.
Taxpayers also are footing the bill for sick, elderly inmates who are no danger to society. The Pennsylvania Prison Society wants to see more elderly inmates released on parole after 25-35 years, saving taxpayers millions in shelter, food and healthcare costs.
Too many lives are being lost and too much money is being wasted in locking up and caring for people who present no danger to our communities.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society’s arguments for change make sense. Pennsylvania lawmakers should heed their calls for a comprehensive review of the state’s prison system and the criminal justice code.
And we await the organization’s report on the data from inmate deaths in Pennsylvania’s prisons. It could help prevent needless deaths from causes that may be anything but natural.
Pennsylvania lags behind in highway safety
The Altoona Mirror
Not until early 2020 will motorists who violate Pennsylvania work zone speed limits experience lighter wallets and pocketbooks under provisions of Act 86 of 2018, which authorizes speed cameras in highway construction and repair areas.
Unfortunately, it is taking the commonwealth too long to get the program fully operational, considering that this state is not the first to implement such an enforcement tool.
There has been plenty of implementation guidance available from beyond Keystone State borders. For example, neighboring Maryland is years ahead of Pennsylvania on the work-zone-speed-enforcement-camera front.
Starting now in Pennsylvania is a 60-day pre-enforcement work zone pilot period, meaning that work-zone speeders identified under the new enforcement program will be getting a “free ride” initially.
According to an Oct. 30 press release from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Turnpike Commission and state police, violations will not be issued during the pilot period.
Because of the winter weather conditions this state usually incurs — weather not conducive to major construction and repair projects — it is doubtful the new work-zone cameras will be put to much official use until spring.
However, work-zone-accident statistics for 2018 provide the basis for calling attention to Pennsylvania lawmakers’ prolonged anemic performance in laying the legislative and implementation foundations for the new slow-down initiative.
Last year, there were 1,804 reported work-zone crashes resulting in 23 fatalities, most of which were vehicle operators. Of that accident total, 43 percent of the work-zone accidents resulted in fatalities or injuries, according to transportation officials.
Motorists in this state have produced troubling numbers regarding highway workers as well. The Oct. 30 press release noted that PennDOT has lost 89 on-the-job workers since 1970, and the turnpike has lost 45 workers since 1945 — employees whose lives were snuffed out while they were doing their jobs trying to make roadways better and safer for the motoring public.
Although grounds for criticism exist regarding how long it is taking Pennsylvania to gear up the new enforcement, there seem to be no basis for questioning or criticizing how the state will be operating work-zone speed limits, nor regarding the penalties that will be meted out to violators.
Here’s why: The program will detect and record only those motorists exceeding posted construction-zone speed limits by 11 mph or more. Meanwhile, fines under the new program won’t be excessive, although it would not be unreasonable if those that have been announced were in fact higher.
According to the Oct. 30 press release, once enforcement begins, registered owners will receive a warning letter for a first offense, a violation notice and $75 fine for a second offense, and a violation notice and $150 fine for third and subsequent offenses — civil penalties for which no points will be assessed to driver’s licenses.
The press release quotes PennDOT secretary Leslie S. Richards’ statement that “the Automated Work Zone Speed Enforcement program isn’t about issuing violations, it’s about saving lives.”
Relevant to note is that the goal of saving lives should have sparked more determination in the Legislature to implement the new speed-zone enforcement tool much sooner.