Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:

Toothless cell-phone ban could make Pa. highways more dangerous

Easton Express-Times

Jan. 19

In trying to correct a weakness in Pennsylvania’s distracted-driving laws — drivers are still permitted to use hand-held phones, except for texting — lawmakers demonstrated last week that they can’t leave bad enough alone.

The debate started out with good intent. The House of Representatives, led by state Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, was attempting an update that would outlaw speaking on hand-held cell phones while driving.

Since 2011 it has been illegal to send or read text messages while driving, and it is a primary offense — meaning police officers can pull over a motorist they observe texting at the wheel. The maximum fine is $50; a conviction doesn’t add points to one’s driving record.

From the outset, the texting ban proved difficult to enforce, but the “stop texting” campaigns that followed probably had some deterrent effect. And it was better than the “anything-goes” permissiveness that preceded it.

Brown’s bill was overdue. It would have been similar to laws in the states surrounding Pennsylvania. Police wouldn’t need to discern whether you are texting or calling to make a traffic stop. New Jersey and 19 other states prohibit all uses of hand-held communication devices while driving.

But that was too much for House conservatives, who saw the bill as a threat to freedom on the roads. (As opposed, say, to being free from tailgating, cutoffs and collisions instigated by people whose minds are focused on phone conversations.)

The opponents, mostly Republicans, were joined by a group of Democratic black representatives who see an expansion of police powers as an invitation to racial profiling.

Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, argued that cell-phone violations should be secondary offenses — meaning police would have to observe a primary offense, such as speeding or reckless driving, to make a stop and issue a ticket for cell phone use.

“As an African-American male who crisscrosses this commonwealth, I am nervous at times when I’m driving in Pennsylvania,” Harris said. “That is real.”

Fair enough. What’s also real is the need to get drivers off the phone. For everyone’s safety.

After attaching amendments to Brown’s bill, the House managed to knee-cap the existing law — not only would speaking on a hand-held phone be a secondary offense, but texting while driving would be demoted from a primary to a secondary offense.

Instead of addressing an inherent weakness in enforcement — the difficulty police face in trying to distinguish between calling and texting in moving vehicles — the House majority has all but assured a free ride for drivers to do both.

Unless, of course, they commit a higher-level infraction. Or kill someone in the process.

The House bill now goes to the Senate, which would do well to revisit Brown’s language and put the teeth back in a cell-phone ban.

Failing that, the existing law would be preferable to another “fix.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2tHkVkm

___

It’s time to fix Pennsylvania’s probation system

Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com

Jan. 20

There’s a growing urgency - and willingness - to fix Pennsylvania’s probation system.

Pennsylvania lawmakers can’t squander this opportunity.

About 178,000 people are on probation in Pennsylvania. Criminal justice reform advocates and a growing number of lawmakers say that number is too high. The system is unnecessarily expensive and punitive. Too many people are on probation for too long, making it exceedingly difficult for those trying for a fresh start.

The good news? There’s a broad, bipartisan recognition that the probation system needs reform. Gov. Tom Wolf has called on lawmakers to reform probation.

“Punishment should fit the crime,” Wolf said in November. “Punishment should not be endless.”

Between probation, parole and prisons, Pennsylvania has the second highest rate of people under correctional control in the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Most other states have defined limits on probation and several states have found ways to reduce the number of people under court supervision.

In Pennsylvania, many spend years on probation, making it harder for them to find work. Some end up going to county jails or state prisons due to technical violations, advocates and lawmakers say.

Probation, which is meant to be an alternative to incarceration, has become a driving force in putting people behind bars, advocates and researchers say. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says he supports efforts to shorten probation terms and reduce the prison population.

If they don’t end up behind bars, violators often strike deals with prosecutors to extend their sentences by years.

Advocates are pushing for reforms to ensure those struggling to pay fines and court supervision costs don’t end up going to jail over an inability to pay. Putting those individuals behind bars can cost them their jobs, which only makes it more difficult to start over (and pay their bills, including court costs).

Experts and advocates say the greatest risk for those on probation to commit new crimes is within the first year. Advocates and some probation officers say there’s little to be gained by maintaining court supervision of most on probation beyond two years.

Yet one in three people on probation - about 60,000 people - are serving sentences of three years or longer. Probation officers say they could use staff and resources better by actively monitoring only those who need supervision.

Republicans and Democrats have crafted legislation to fix the system. Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, have sponsored a bill in the state House. State Sens. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, have sponsored a bill in the Senate.

While many lawmakers agree that the probation system needs to be fixed, they don’t agree on how to do it.

Some want uniform caps on probation terms and the Senate bill calls for such limits: three years for misdemeanors and five years for probations. The House bill had similar language which was dropped, disappointing some advocates. The House measure now includes a presumption that probation would end after five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors. Under the House bill, mandatory conferences would enabling judges to shorten terms.

Advocates cringed at some of the changes. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania dropped its support of the House bill, arguing it no longer ensures a reduction in probation sentences. The ACLU also objects to new provisions that would allow for warrantless searches of offenders.

Delozier and Harris say the legislation is being negotiated and is a work in progress. It still must go through the House and Senate. Lawmakers say they are committed to getting a bill to the governor this year, hopefully in the spring.

“We want to find that sweet spot for a compromise," Delozier said.

Reforming the probation system doesn’t just help offenders turn their lives around. Probation reform can bolster Pennsylvania’s economy by enabling more people to get back into the workforce. That’s one reason why a number of Republicans are backing efforts to fix the system.

While Harrisburg has had no shortage of partisan shenanigans, state lawmakers have worked together admirably on criminal justice reform, including the Clean Slate law, which allows those with convictions of less serious crimes to clear their record.

Last month, lawmakers approved a package of reforms that will allow some lower-level offenders to be eligible for parole more quickly. Lawmakers also approved a bill creating an advisory panel to improve the probation system.

There are honest disagreements in fixing Pennsylvania’s flawed probation system. But lawmakers must work with a sense of urgency to get a measure to the governor this spring. With the fall elections, the Legislature probably won’t get much done in the second half of the year. And this issue demands immediate attention.

Offenders don’t deserve a free pass. But they do deserve a second chance.

Online: https://bit.ly/2RfDdC6

___

Pa.'s background check law isn't being enforced. Lawmakers and law enforcement need to act.

LNP

Jan. 22

Parents, you’re on your own.

That’s the takeaway, it seems to us, of the York Dispatch and Spotlight PA investigation that found that the state's background check law isn't being enforced.

As of 2015, as the article pointed out, state law has required “anyone working with children in the public, private or nonprofit sector, including volunteers, to undergo a criminal background check by the State Police and a child abuse clearance by the Department of Welfare. Some are also required to get a third check by the FBI. The clearances are good for 60 months and must be on file with the organization before volunteers start their work.

“The mandate was hailed as a major step forward in protecting children, and few question the value of it. But ... its effectiveness relies on trust — not actual enforcement.”

This is clearly not sufficient. Those seeking to abuse children won’t be bound by an honor system. Sexual abusers often look for loopholes to exploit and opportunities to offend.

A paper tiger of a background check system is not much of a deterrent to abuse.

Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA that it would be hard to successfully prosecute someone under the law as written because there needs to be “willful violation of the law.”

And the state isn’t monitoring background check compliance in organizations such as the Boy Scouts or youth sports clubs or dance troupes.

Amy Grippi, executive director of child services for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, told The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA that state-regulated entities, such as day care facilities and residential homes for children, are regularly checked to ensure they are collecting and keeping clearances on file.

“But overseeing other private and nonprofit groups that are not already subject to state oversight would be a major undertaking and require more resources,” the article noted.

“There are probably thousands of such programs and services,” Grippi said.

She suggested that parents ask youth groups directly about their policies on clearances.

We’d suggest that parents ask these specific questions of an organization’s leaders:

— Has every person who’s going to work with, or supervise, my child gotten the state-mandated clearances?

— Have you personally checked those clearances to ensure they’re up to date?

— Can you send me an email confirming that you’ve checked those clearances?

If that last question seems extreme, consider the following.

A York County Boy Scout troop allowed a scoutmaster to attend an overnight trip, even though he did not have up-to-date clearances on file. And “a York-based troop member complained that one of its leaders had attended a two-day camp last summer thinking his clearances were on file, when, in fact, New Birth of Freedom Council officials had no record of them,” The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported.

Ron Gardner, CEO of the New Birth of Freedom Council, said individual troops — which are led by volunteers — share the responsibility with the council of making sure that clearances are properly maintained.

But, again, where’s the accountability if they are not?

In 2019, the Department of Human Services received at least five complaints “about volunteers allegedly lacking proper clearances," according to records released under the Right-to-Know Law, The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported.

One of the complaints was from a retired county detective who had investigated crimes against children. He expressed his concern that “youth programs do not take the required clearances seriously.”

The Department of Human Services failed to intervene in nearly every instance, instead directing those complaining to contact the organization’s insurance carrier or report the organization to the local district attorney’s office.

The latter seems to be a dead end. The York Dispatch and Spotlight PA reported that no one yet has been prosecuted for violating the law.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said the state should implement a clear and confidential way to report noncompliance and require that noncompliance be reported to police.

We agree. And we hope new Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams agrees, too, and takes a serious look at background check compliance in this county.

Lancaster County state lawmakers must understand the importance of a strong background check system — one with teeth. We hope they follow up on this issue, too.

They cannot wait until a child is harmed by an adult who had no business being near that child.

In the meantime, organizations entrusted with the safety of children must ensure that their employees and volunteers have up-to-date clearances.

And parents need to ensure that the organizations they are trusting to keep their children safe are making background check compliance a priority.

Don’t trust — verify.

Online: https://bit.ly/37iWg4b

___

On LGBT issues, N.J. may show Pa. the way

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jan. 22

Haddon Heights and 11 other public school districts in New Jersey are road-testing a new middle and high school curriculum that includes information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people and will be rolled out statewide next fall. This welcome development could hold useful lessons for Pennsylvania — and for any jurisdictions concerned about the potential impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected this spring about whether existing federal employment discrimination protections include LGBT Americans.

Measures New Jersey passed in 1991 and 2006 already prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, the bill mandating the new curriculum, which also includes material about the contributions disabled people make to the American story, won strong support from educational and grassroots organizations and was approved by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Democrat-dominated legislature. On the other hand, despite repeated efforts by individual Democrats such as State Sen. Larry Farnese and State Rep. Brian Sims, of Philadelphia, and others, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled statehouse in Harrisburg has historically shown little or no inclination to move legislation involving the interests of the state’s estimated 400,000 LGBT people.

As The Inquirer’s Melanie Burney reported this week, New Jersey’s curriculum program has so far been generally well-received. But it’s also drawing predictable fire from organizations insisting that secular classroom material about LGBT people somehow violates religious freedom and parental rights. That’s quite a feat for, say, a high school history lesson that includes the fact that Bayard Rustin, who helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic March on Washington, was a gay man.

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, fierce opposition to LGBT rights often emanates from well-funded national organizations such as the American Family Association — which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has helped stymie recent legislative efforts in Harrisburg. Others argue the state’s historically gerrymandered congressional districts also have an impact, helping empower and sustain a political establishment more reliably conservative than the overall population.

Even measures that in New Jersey have drawn bipartisan support, such as the bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed Tuesday banning the so-called gay and transgender “panic defense” in criminal homicide cases, would be nonstarters in Pennsylvania, where the existing hate-crime law hasn’t been amended to include criminal acts motivated by anti-LGBT bias. Philadelphia and more than 50 other municipalities or counties in the state protect LGBT people from employment discrimination. But across much of Pennsylvania, an employer can dismiss someone simply for not being heterosexual. This is simply wrong by any standard.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and the Supreme Court in October heard arguments in separate cases about whether “sex” should be interpreted to mean the act makes it illegal to fire someone solely for being openly gay or transgender. With five generally conservative and four reliably liberal justices, the court may prove unlikely to rule in favor of extending this basic protection to LGBT people. All the more reason for Pennsylvania and the 28 other states without such protections to follow New Jersey’s lead.

Online: https://bit.ly/36dMsXH

___

The black and white of guns

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jan. 21

It is easy to paint any issue in pure, unyielding black and white. Abortion. Environment. Poverty. Health care. Energy. Immigration. Taxes. Everything can boil down to pro or con.

But is that accurate? Almost never.

Let’s look at guns.

Pennsylvania is often tagged as a gun-friendly state. It’s hard to forget Barack Obama saying in the 2008 presidential campaign that “bitter” people in former industrial towns decimated by job losses “cling to guns or religion.” Someone in Seattle might think every Pennsylvanian has an arsenal. It’s just not true.

Pennsylvania is a state where hunting is a sport and a tradition and a way to fill the freezer for a year’s worth of eating. It’s a state with one of the most forcefully worded statements on gun rights woven into its constitution. It’s a state where gun owners take those rights seriously.

But it’s also a state where people feel differently. Pittsburgh’s mayor is defending an incredibly controversial package of laws that would limit ownership of specific weapons and regulate the ability of certain people to have guns. That package was born in the aftermath of the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

It is not right or fair to tar the state as one thing or another. It isn’t right or fair to do the same to gun owners or gun control advocates, either.

On Monday in Homewood, the Church of the Holy Cross Episcopal ran out of money buying back guns in a no-questions-asked event aimed at taking weapons off the streets. Rifles, pistols, even two AR-15s were surrendered. A total of 145 weapons were taken in, some given up even after the money was gone.

On the same day, in Virginia, a crowd of thousands demonstrated peacefully, despite worries that violence would erupt, in opposition to plans for that state’s leadership to pass gun-control legislation.

The gun owners didn’t get violent. The people giving up their guns didn’t just do it for money. It was more complicated.

There is a rainbow of gray in an issue like gun control, and that should be more of a focus because it means buy-in from both sides. It’s seen in support for more cooperation between agencies that would better enforce existing gun laws and enhance background checks.

Important issues are never black and white. It’s not fair to paint them that way.

Online: https://bit.ly/2tyPAjU