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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

May 8, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:


To varying degrees, lotteries impact the budgets of America’s states.

Even if lottery profits are directed primarily toward funding specific programs, like in Pennsylvania, where senior citizen programs benefit, those profits enable states to avoid tapping general fund budgets for that amount of money.

The Pennsylvania Lottery reports that, since its first lottery ticket was sold in 1972, the lottery has contributed more than $29 billion to programs benefiting older Keystone State residents.

The programs include property tax and rent rebates, free and reduced-fare transportation services, the low-cost prescription programs PACE and PACENET, care services and local services provided by the 52 Area Agencies on Aging.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, more than $1 billion went to support programs benefiting the state’s seniors.

Meanwhile, this state’s lottery, an agency of the state government, points out proudly that it’s the only state lottery that designates all of its proceeds to programs benefiting older residents.

But now there’s a glitch that could reduce significantly the amount of lottery profits Pennsylvania could provide for seniors’ programs.

As an article in the April 26 Mirror reported, the U.S. Justice Department has put a handful of states — including Pennsylvania — in danger of losing at least $220 million in net lottery profits annually as a result of a new interpretation of a 1961 law, the continued need for which is open to question.

That law is the Wire Act, the intent of which was to target mob gambling activities by prohibiting wagering across state lines.

In 2011, the Justice Department concluded that online gambling within states that do not involve sporting events would not break the law. However, last November, the department revised its thinking, issuing an opinion that the law applies to any form of gambling that crosses state lines.

A federal judge subsequently gave “justice” until late April to clarify its opinion, but the department said in a court filing on April 25 that it still was reviewing whether the Wire Act applies to state lotteries and their vendors and wouldn’t prosecute any while the review continues.

According to the April 26 Mirror article, legal experts say the multi-state Powerball and Mega Millions games are at risk, depending on how the review plays out.

If those two games and other multi-state lottery games become prohibited, the losses to state lotteries could amount to many billions of dollars; the figure $23 billion has been mentioned.

Currently, seven states sell lottery tickets online, while others offer residents internet-based lottery subscription services.

Many Americans believe that states have become too dependent on lottery profits. That’s true.

Those profits make it easier for lawmakers to avoid tax increases and to otherwise balance their budgets — but also to sometimes make questionable spending decisions that they could not make if lottery profits weren’t available.

But there’s also sentiment that, with the Internet so much a part of people’s lives, the Wire Act, like the blue laws that regulated work, commerce and amusements on Sundays, should be repealed, or at least modified, so as not to damage the lotteries.

Considering all the money at stake, lotteries and the states have good cause to be nervous.

__ The Altoona Mirror

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2HbF70B




An article headlined “Cash Grab” on Page A1 of last weekend’s Sunday LNP detailed criticisms and alleged abuses in Pennsylvania of the legal procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. WHYY’s Bobby Allyn and Ryan Briggs, reporting for Keystone Crossroads, note that the practice used to be most common in big cities like Philadelphia, but there has been “a radical shift” in the past half-decade. They write: “Records show Philadelphia collected less money from police confiscation in 2017 than any recent year on record. Meanwhile, its suburbs and outlying counties like Berks and Lancaster have ramped up cash seizures, according to an analysis of five years of data from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.”

We are, of course, quite familiar with the issue of civil asset forfeiture here in Lancaster County, given how it has been at the center of months of headlines involving a court battle between LNP Media Group and District Attorney Craig Stedman. LNP’s Carter Walker filed a Right-to-Know request last September for detailed records of how seized items were processed once they were confiscated and, if sold, how the money was allocated or spent.

While Stedman has provided LNP Media Group with 18 years of summary reports related to drug forfeiture assets, the state Office of Open Records has ruled that his office must comply with Walker’s full Right-to-Know request. Stedman’s office has appealed that ruling to the Court of Common Pleas.

Beyond that, the recent reporting by Allyn and Briggs sheds additional light on the evolution of civil asset forfeiture and the serious concerns associated with the practice.

They summarized the practice this way: “Civil asset forfeiture ... allows authorities to take money, cars and other assets of those suspected of selling drugs — even before a person is charged or found guilty. Proceeds are liquidated and used at the whim of law enforcement outside of county budget oversight.”

There are two key points there.

“Before a person is charged or found guilty.” We don’t believe that’s just.

“Outside of county budget oversight.” We don’t believe that’s proper or what’s best for the public.

With forfeitures, it’s too easy for innocent people to become victims of the process. Allyn and Briggs highlight one such case. In Berks County, a 2016 narcotics bust included the seizure of an SUV that was being used in a drug deal but was registered to a woman who was enrolled in college and had nothing to do with the drug operation. She was never charged with a crime — and was still without her vehicle as of early 2019.

(Additional examples of people who were not involved in drug-dealing but nevertheless lost assets to forfeiture are detailed in the expanded version of the article, which can be found on WHYY.org and in Tuesday’s edition of The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication.)

Seizing the cash and property of people who may never be charged or convicted is unjust. Allyn and Briggs note that “nine states require a criminal conviction before an asset is seized. Pennsylvania is not one of them. That reform was proposed here, but it failed after lobbying from district attorneys.”

We understand that in some cases, suspicious money and assets may need to be collected as evidence, but it should be kept separate — not spent or sold — and returned to the rightful owner if not involved in the crime.

An individual who is not involved in a crime should not be at risk of permanently losing assets to law enforcement. The impact of losing money and/or a vehicle can be a devastating situation from which it is difficult to recover.

Many agree. Berks County defense lawyer Joel Ready told Allyn and Briggs: “Anybody who had $500 taken out of their pocket by the government and (is) told, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove that you didn’t do anything to get this back,’ is going to understand that this is a profound injustice. Most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to come in and get that money back.”

Most notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been repeatedly critical of the practice. “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he is quoted as saying in a 2017 article in The Atlantic. “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.”

In February, the Supreme Court, citing the U.S. Constitution’s excessive-fines clause, agreed that law enforcement officers in Indiana could not seize the $42,000 Land Rover of a man who pleaded guilty to dealing in a controlled substance and conspiracy to commit theft — crimes for which the maximum fine was $10,000.

The Washington Post editorial board noted that “the ruling is narrow ... (and) does not mean state and federal authorities may no longer seek to seize property they suspect of being connected to a crime.” Still, it represents a small step toward the necessary curbing of the practice.

Funding question

We understand why some district attorneys embrace and even rely upon civil asset forfeiture.

The method of properly funding their departments — especially in the crucial battle against the flow of illegal drugs — is broken.

By not providing them with sufficient budgets, we allowed forfeiture to look like a good solution.

“Counties pressed for funds are going to increase civil forfeiture,” University of Pennsylvania professor Louis Rulli told Allyn and Briggs. “DAs know that this is a very profitable funding stream.”

“We’re looking for assets more so than we ever did before,” added Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams. “This is bad guys’ money that we’re taking to enable us to arrest more bad guys.”

But not everyone is a “bad guy.”

Sometimes the person whose assets are seized — a parent or spouse, for instance — are punished just for their proximity to a bad guy.

There is also the problem, at times, of agencies becoming “addicted” to forfeiture.

Rulli notes that Philadelphia, which has reduced the use of forfeiture, learned a lesson over the decades. In the words of Allyn and Briggs, that lesson was this: “When forfeiture is used as a cash cow, everything can look like drug money. Everything can look like a prize.”

The root of the problem is funding law enforcement with forfeiture assets. It provides a direct incentive to seize assets. And that can potentially lead to abuse, overreach and innocent people being victimized.

“District attorneys ... have come under fire for allegations of improper use,” Allyn and Briggs note. They cite Stedman using more than $21,000 in civil forfeiture funds to lease and maintain an SUV for his use and “a cottage business of auctioning cars” by the York County DA.

Some argue that civil asset forfeiture helps us fight crime while saving taxpayers money.

But at what true cost?

We believe the public’s greater interest would be best served by a system that is transparent, has full oversight and is adequately funded by taxpayers.

Civil asset forfeiture is not the just approach.

__ LPN

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2vLvnF1



Three more life-without-parole prisoners will be released after Gov. Tom Wolf commuted the sentences of a convicted murderer and two men who participated in crimes where someone was killed.

The moves were approved by the Board of Pardons before being sent to the governor.

Wolf has now commuted eight life sentences. It is easy to see the move as wishy-washy leniency from a governor who won’t sign death warrants, leaving them to his Secretary of Corrections even though Pennsylvania hasn’t actually executed anyone in 20 years.

But it might be the next step in a national conversation about prison reform.

Take Samuel Barlow of Pittsburgh.

Barlow was barely 18 when he made a tragically stupid decision. He was the lookout for a Dauphin County bank robbery with two 17-year-olds. A customer tried to stop them and was shot and killed.

It was 1968.

His court record is a decades-long road map of denials of appeals and applications while representing himself. He has gone before the board asking for clemency repeatedly, according to Pennlive and the Philadelphia Inquirer, with even the Dauphin County prosecutor supporting his release. One of his co-defendants was released after a change in law making life sentences illegal for those under 18. The other died in prison. The victim’s last known relative has also died.

No, Barlow hasn’t died. But it’s hard to say he hasn’t fulfilled the idea of a lifetime behind bars. Fifty years came and went, almost triple the time he lived freely outside. He went into the prison system the same age most kids enter college. He will leave it 68 years old, older than many people are when they retire.

Pennsylvania and the federal government are both taking steps toward changing the focus of corrections, attempting to make it more about fixing problems than kennelling dangerous people, because eventually the people are supposed to go free and it is better for everyone if they leave prison better people than they were when they were convicted.

That may also mean reconsidering what a life sentence means.

Pennsylvania has 5,500 people serving life without parole. If more of them leave as senior citizens like Barlow, having never worked a regular adult job and paid into Social Security, how do they survive? Is society better served by keeping them locked up, or is there a more cost-effective yet safe middle ground — maybe something like the halfway house where Barlow will spend at least a year before being truly freed?

__ The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2VVrYlx



Last year Pennsylvania took a courageous step toward justice for thousands of victims of child sexual abuse. A grand jury investigation uncovered the crimes of more than 300 priests in the Catholic Church and a hierarchy that gave them cover.

The grand jury, led by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, didn’t simply pry open the past. It looked to the future, recommending laws that would help people get long-sought relief from the courts, tighten reporting standards for suspected abuse, and create a society in which children would be better protected, if not totally shielded, from predators.

Well, the future is now.

The Pennsylvania Legislature tried last year to assemble a package of reforms recommended by the grand jury, but failed when the House and Senate couldn’t agree. Some lawmakers thought the Catholic Church’s program to settle with victims out of court should be allowed to play out, in lieu of changing the statute of limitations to give long-ago victims a limited “window” to sue.

Liberalizing the statute of limitations is still a major sticking point — a shameful one — but at least the House of Representatives has taken the initiative to address other changes.

In bills approved last month and sent to the Senate, the lower house clarified that nondisclosure agreements with child sex abuse victims do not prevent them from speaking with with police about suspected criminal activities. The grand jury reported that church officials often employed such agreements to try to keep victims quiet.

Another House bill would increase the penalties for mandated reporters who fail to contact law enforcement about suspected abuse.

Also, the House overwhelmingly agreed to enumerate the rights of crime victims in the state constitution, and to revoke the pension benefits of public officials and workers convicted of sexual offenses.

It shouldn’t take much arm-twisting to see these reforms are needed to protect vulnerable children and teens against sexual abuse, and not just from religious organizations. The Senate now has a framework with which to get these bills to Gov. Wolf’s desk.

The biggest hurdle is still the statute of limitations — specifically, whether a two-year window of court access should be opened for victims who missed their deadlines years ago.

The House version would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sex crimes altogether; future abuse victims would be allowed to file civil lawsuits until they are 55. The law now requires a victim to seek criminal charges by age 50 and file civil suits by age 30.

Yet the remedy for older adult victims would be a constitutional amendment creating a two-year window for litigation — a cumbersome process that could take years. We agree with Shapiro that this could be done through the law-making process, without having to tell victims who missed their shot at justice that they’ll have to keep waiting.

The state Senate holds the key to dismantle decades of injustice. It’s time to act.

__ The Easton Express-Times

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2HbvXkL



One especially damaging effect of the explosion of information enabled by this digitally powered era of communication is the speed with which that technology delivers great big doses of misinformation. It is seen in baseless political attacks designed to inflame and divide. It is seen in viral misinformation that stokes irrational fears and threatens to roll back progress lately won in areas like medicine and race relations.

That is one of the reasons health reporter David Bruce wound up writing a story for Sunday that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. The story warned readers who plan to travel to Pittsburgh — or any other places on the growing list of U.S. locales with confirmed measles outbreaks — to take precautions to ensure their immunizations are adequate.

Do that, or risk infection from a disease once considered eradicated in one of the nation’s greatest public health victories. As of Sunday, five measles cases had been confirmed in Pittsburgh, adding to the more than 700 nationwide.

Measles, Erie County Public Health Nurse Karen Wiggers said, is not just a little rash. It can kill.

Even when not lethal, it can leave patients deaf or brain-damaged. Virulent, it passes between people via sneezing, coughing, even talking, and is capable of lingering in the air or on a surface. As Charlotte Berringer, director of community health for the Erie County Department of Health, told Bruce, “Nine out of 10 people who are within range of the virus and have no immunity will get measles.”

Consider these oft-repeated statistics: Before vaccination became routine, 48,000 children a year were hospitalized with measles, 1,000 of them developed permanent brain damage and 500 died.

A number of factors have led to measles’ resurgence worldwide, including poverty, war and tight vaccination supplies, as The New York Times has reported. But the outbreaks also have been enabled by those who refuse to vaccinate children due to irrational fears fueled by misinformation, including the debunked myth that measles vaccination causes autism.

Some believe herd immunity frees them to exercise liberty and eschew vaccination. But that herd immunity only stands as long as enough people in the herd are vaccinated and can contain the disease’s spread.

There is only one good answer here: vaccinate. Parents who refuse to do so endanger not only their own children, but others around them who might be too young to be vaccinated or who, because of a variety of health conditions, cannot be vaccinated.

People have too easily forgotten the eras when deadly, disfiguring diseases held communities in thralls of fear and grief. They risk returning the most vulnerable among us to those days because of fear that has no basis. Don’t turn back the clock.

__ The Erie Times News

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2H7clxW

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