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Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

December 18, 2019 GMT

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

Well being of less fortunate should be focus

Altoona Mirror

Dec. 15

Current opposition in Pennsylvania regarding the proposed closing of two centers for individuals with intellectual disabilities — Polk in Venango County and White Haven in Luzerne County — is not unique.

The announcements in 2017 about the closings of the state centers in Norristown, Montgomery County, and Hamburg, Berks County, were met with similar opposition.

The closing of Polk and White Haven, if eventually carried out, would leave facilities in Ebensburg and Selinsgrove, Snyder County, as the only remaining centers of that kind in the commonwealth.

Wolf administration officials are confident that the two remaining facilities would be capable of meeting whatever additional level of services might be required of them.

That being said, Polk and White Haven, like the Norristown and Hamburg facilities formerly did, provide an economic shot-in-the-arm to their local economies.

Norristown and Hamburg employed about 700 workers when the Wolf administration announced that they would be closed. Now, more than 1,100 employees’ jobs are at stake at Polk and White Haven, along with the positive economic impact those centers have had not only in their local communities but well beyond.

But the closings of Polk and White Haven would be another step consistent with the laudable decades-old, nationwide process of taking people out of institutions and supporting them in their home communities.

The two proposed closings would advance the Wolf administration’s stated commitment to reduce reliance on institutional care and improve access to home and community services.

The attitude of the governor and his administration is that individuals experience a better quality of life when they are able to receive care and support in their homes and communities. Such thinking has been becoming increasingly deep-rooted for more than a half-century, in Pennsylvania and far beyond.

This is clearly a more enlightened time regarding care of people with such disabilities than, for example, in the 1960s, when Pennsylvania “warehoused” in state institutions about 40,000 people with mental illness and 13,000 people with intellectual disabilities.

Those numbers have been reduced to about 900 people in facilities that treat intellectual disabilities and 1,500 people in state hospitals.

The issue before Pennsylvania now is two-pronged. On one side are state politicians who, loyal to communities’ economic interests, are proposing a tactic that could act as longterm delay or permanent blockage of the administration’s Polk-White Haven objective.

On the other is a coalition of disability groups urging opposition to legislation that would impose a moratorium on the closings in question.

As reported in Thursday’s Mirror, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Inclusive Community contends that state funds spent to operate the two institutions could be better spent improving community support programs for the disabled.

Opponents of the closings point to a need to delay until some 13,000 individuals awaiting Medicaid-waiver services are authorized to receive home and community-based services — a reasonable concern but not an insurmountable one.

What is most important, then, is that surmountable community economic and employment concerns not take precedence over the well-being of individuals whose disabilities are lifelong — and who deserve to be accorded the most enlightened opportunities available.

Pennsylvania should project itself as compassionate but much more than that.

Online: https://bit.ly/38UvvUH

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Justice reform sound priority

The Citizens’ Voice

Dec. 18

With a few exceptions, a package of criminal justice reform bills that have passed the state House Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan majorities would improve the overall fairness of the system while reducing its massive costs to taxpayers.

Each state prison inmate now costs Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $42,000 a year, so it is in the interest of inmates and taxpayers to drive down the recidivism rate as a means of reducing the size of the prison population.

The reform package aims to do so through changes to the parole and probation system and by making it easier for people released from prison to find jobs.

Under current rules, former prisoners can be returned to prison for minor parole violations. One new bill would allow returns to prison only if the former prisoner commits a crime or violates the most serious parole conditions.

One of the principal drivers of recidivism is the inability of released prisoners to find jobs. The package would make that easier by creating a readily accessible database of employers who hire former prisoners, eliminating obstacles in state law to obtaining the state occupational licenses that are required for some jobs, and authorizing sealing the records of people who are acquitted or unconditionally pardoned.

Unfortunately, one of the measures that passed is not a reform and should be defeated by the full House or the Senate, or vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf if its passes the Legislature. It would double down on mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes. Mandatory minimums are a major cause of the national mass incarceration problem and its attendant costs, and they preclude each case from being handled according to its unique circumstances.

In a tribute to the bipartisan nature of the reform movement, two representatives — Republican Paul Schemel of Greencastle, Franklin County, and Democrat Christopher Rabb of Philadelphia voted against the mandatory minimum sentence bill.

“We have judges. We have sentencing guidelines. We should let them do their work,” Schemel said. He is right.

The package should be tweaked in some other areas, including the elimination of a provision that allows judges to deny parolees the right to use medically prescribed marijuana.

But overall, the package is a sound step toward a fairer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.

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

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Task force may be a dreaded term, but this one seems necessary

LNP

Dec. 18

We appreciated this thought from state Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, quoted by The Associated Press: “I’d like to say there is no such thing as a bad kid. However, we all know kids do bad things.”

It’s true that some kids do bad things. So do some adults.

Consider the Luzerne County judges who, roughly a decade ago, were found to be sending kids to for-profit detention facilities in exchange for kickbacks from the operators of those facilities.

Consider the adults who were in charge of The Glen Mills Schools, a Delaware County juvenile justice facility that was shut down by the state earlier this year after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on its history of endemic abuse and violence toward its young residents, who’d been sent there by court order. (Three cheers for investigative reporting.)

As the Inquirer recounted, it “interviewed dozens of former students and counselors who said staff broke students’ bones and busted their heads open for infractions as minor as mouthing off.

“Glen Mills employees then threatened boys with longer sentences or told them they’d be sent to worse programs if they told their parents, according to interviews and records. Staff monitored students’ phone calls, and hid boys with egregious injuries in their rooms.”

That is not juvenile justice; that’s cruelty. And anything like what transpired at Glen Mills must not be allowed to happen again.

The creation of the task force is “an important step toward protecting vulnerable young Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said. “With this task force, we can thoroughly review our juvenile justice system and find ways to make lasting change that ensures every young Pennsylvanian is getting the support needed to grow into a successful adult.”

That indeed should be the aim. A child who makes a mistake — or even repeated mistakes — shouldn’t be sentenced to a life of incarceration and poverty.

And though the term “task force” smacks of bureaucratese, this strikes us as an important effort to reform a system badly in need of it.

Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, said ensuring “our juvenile justice system rehabilitates our youngest offenders not only helps create a positive path for them but also strengthens families, protects communities, and promotes long-term benefits to all of us.”

He is right, of course.

So, too, was Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, who told the Inquirer that she hoped Wolf appointed young people and people of color to the task force.

This is important because young people of color are incarcerated “in disproportionately greater numbers ... even while youth offending patterns are relatively similar,” according to the law center’s website.

We hope the governor heeds this sound recommendation as he sets about working with the legislative and judicial branches to appoint task force members in the next month.

Dan Jurman, executive director of the state Office of Advocacy and Reform, will guide the task force’s work. Jurman formerly led the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County.

According to the Inquirer, Jurman said he would press for “changes that so many of us know have been needed for so long.”

“We can do better,” Jurman said. “We can be sure that trauma doesn’t become a life sentence for our children.”

His reference to trauma is significant. The trauma of what are known as adverse childhood experiences — assault, abuse, poverty, family breakdown and the like — can lead children to act out in ways that result in their incarceration. If the ultimate goals are rehabilitation and life success for juvenile offenders, our juvenile justice system is going to need to better recognize and treat trauma — and not heap more of it on already traumatized young offenders.

Pennsylvania’s rate of committing juveniles to residential detention ranks among the highest in the nation. This needs to change.

A 2015 study co-authored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Joseph Doyle found that juvenile incarceration lowers high-school graduation rates by 13 percentage points and increases adult incarceration by 23 percentage points.

A child’s whole life story shouldn’t be written in his adolescence. We hope the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force comes up with solutions that keep communities safe while ensuring that juvenile offenders get a chance to steer their lives in a more positive direction.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Q383Ms

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Ghost busters treat parts as weapons

Scranton Times-Tribune

Dec. 17

The need to trace weapons used in violent crimes points to several needed reforms, such as a requirement to report the loss or theft of weapons, that would not diminish the rights of any individual gun owner. But they are impeded by gun-rights absolutists and their political beneficiaries in state legislatures, especially in Pennsylvania.

Felons, domestic abusers, and others who may not legally have firearms often are creative in obtaining them. Unfortunately, irresponsible lawmakers often have help to keep those people a step ahead of the law by maintaining needless obstacles to investigation.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is on the mark with a recent directive to state police regarding one means by which criminals are able to exploit laws that are meant to accommodate legal, responsible gun ownership.

For years, gun hobbyists have partially constructed their own weapons by buying “80% kits” with fully constructed lower receivers, including the trigger mechanism. They complete the work with stocks and barrels.

Because the kit is not a completed weapon, it does not include the serial number that would come with a fully manufactured gun, which police would use to trace it if it is used to commit a crime.

Because they are largely untraceable, such weapons are known as “ghost guns.”

The question of how to deal with such weapons gained urgency in November 2017, when Kevin Jason Neal, 44, who had surrendered several weapons under a court order stemming from his record of domestic and other violence, used two assault-style weapons that he had constructed himself to kill his wife and four other people at Rancho Tehama Reserve, California.

Shapiro told state police Monday to treat possession of any “ghost gun” part as possession of a completed weapon when investigating someone who is prohibited by law from owning or possessing a gun. That simply enforces the law, and does not preclude any legitimate gun ownership by anyone.

State lawmakers should go a step further and follow California’s lead. After the 2017 shooting, that state’s legislature passed a law requiring owners of self-manufactured weapons to obtain a state-issued serial number, another measure that does not restrict legal gun ownership.

Whether it is to prevent gun violence or help police investigate it after the fact, lawmakers should act for public safety.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Ex4PLT

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Tax zones are great opportunities — for the rich

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dec. 16

Those concerned about the lack of oversight and accountability for tax credit programs like the corporate welfare New Jersey bestowed upon developers in Camden ought to brace themselves. The federal government’s program, launched as part of President Trump’s 2017 tax package, could prove to be that debacle on steroids.

The “Opportunity Zone” is a new scheme to spur development in communities historically hungry for it — by giving tax breaks to investors. It uses public money — in this case, deferring or waiving taxes that would ordinarily be paid on capital gains — to subsidize private individuals and enterprises. Once an investor qualifies for the program, barely any requirements kick in to ensure that targeted neighborhoods genuinely benefit.

This is the latest iteration of the widely discredited but nevertheless enduring fantasy that the transfer of wealth inherent in giving tax breaks to people who have plenty of money will somehow benefit people who don’t have any. Eighty-two census tracts in Philadelphia and seven in Camden are among the 8,800 census tracts nationwide that have been deemed sufficiently distressed to qualify for an OZ designation. The program’s advocates on both sides of the river say deals are getting done.

The problem is, the federal guidelines contain no reporting or other requirements to demonstrate benefits to the struggling communities being used as the ostensible rationale for the program. Those who concocted New Jersey’s tax “incentives” spent lots of time figuring out how to give investors the biggest bang for the buck. Creating jobs and otherwise benefiting the host community? Pretty much an afterthought, albeit one used to make the giveaways politically palatable and even, briefly, popular (see: “Camden Rising”). And the Opportunity Zone program is even worse.

Because the transactions at the heart of the program are mostly private, involving either individuals or groups of investors and the Internal Revenue Service, Philly, Camden, and other municipalities playing host to these arrangements are largely out of the loop. The tracts were chosen by governors using 2010 census data — by now likely to be seriously out of date in many instances — and can include at least in part neighborhoods that are not distressed but close to those that are, or were. Hence the sort of luxe high-rises and posh hotels being built with the help of OZ that a recent New York Times story described in cities like Houston and New Orleans. According to the Times, even former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie “has raised money for opportunity-zone investments including an apartment building in Hackensack, N.J., and a self-storage center in Connecticut.”

There is some good news. On Dec. 6, a group of Republican senators introduced a measure to require more accountability from investors using the program. In the meantime, communities hungry for development must be vigilant in scrutinizing and overseeing, to the extent they can, projects within their borders. It is long past time that we demand evidence these giveaways actually help, not hinder, economic recovery in neighborhoods long abandoned by private capital — and thanks to Opportunity Zone program, now are being used as bait to lure such dollars back. At a price.

Online: https://bit.ly/38Sp8S0