New ‘clean slate law is an important step to reducing recidivism, Jan. 4

There wasn’t a lot of fanfare to go with it, but Pennsylvania took an important step this week toward reducing recidivism and driving down the amount that taxpayers spend on keeping their fellow citizens behind bars.

A new state program called My Clean Slate provides free legal consultation to determine eligibility to participate in this new “clean slate” law that Gov. Tom Wolf signed last year. The law allows those with non-violent first-degree misdemeanors and most simple assault convictions to petition to have their records sealed. As PennLive’s Jan Murphy reports, applicants must have been conviction-free for 10 years and owe no outstanding costs or fines to be eligible.

The law also expands criminal record sealing to include more offenses by filing petitions. It also creates an automated computer process that will go into effect on June 29 to seal arrests that didn’t result in convictions within 60 days, summary convictions after 10 years and some second- and third-degree misdemeanor convictions if there are no subsequent convictions for 10 years.

It’s no secret that having a criminal record is a major barrier to employment and that employment is one of the best ways to make sure that people stay out of trouble, out of the criminal justice system, and out of jail. According to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 77 million Americans have a criminal record. That amounts to 1 in 3 adults.

As recently as 2014, “employment barriers faced by people with felony convictions — including occupational licensing and other challenges, such as lower levels of education and job skills — were associated with a reduction in the overall employment rate, amounting to a loss of at least 1.7 million workers from the workforce and a cost of at least $78 billion to the economy,” the research noted.

And after years of get-tough measures that resulted in lower crime rates by warehousing offenders at a huge cost to state budgets and did little to actually fight crime, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle realized that it was time to take a smarter approach.

The Pennsylvania law, authored by state Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, is one such example of that bipartisan cooperation.

At a news conference this week announcing the new program, Delozier said she encouraged “anyone with a nonviolent criminal record to see if they are eligible for this opportunity. A minor mistake more than a decade ago should not keep someone from obtaining employment or renting an apartment.”

Harris added that bill is a “first step in helping people become fully engaged citizens again, and now easing the process for them to get their second chance is next.”

The action in Pennsylvania comes amid the bipartisan recognition in Washington that America has to be smarter about fighting crime.

Late last year, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a landmark criminal justice reform bill known as The First Step Act, that would allow about 181,000 imprisoned people in the federal system to earn an earlier release in prison and ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law, among other reforms, Vox reported.

The new Pennsylvania law, which comes on top of other reforms by Wolf and under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, is a reminder that, after years of unquestioningly locking people up and throwing away the key, that Pennsylvania has turned the corner on criminal justice and emerged as that most welcome of all things: a national model for reform.

—PennLive

Erie crime stats carry lessons, Jan. 8

In July, the Unified Erie anti-violence initiative celebrated a milestone and success: Five years of unprecedented collaboration by law enforcement, social scientists, neighborhood and religious leaders and a data-driven strategy had disrupted an explosion of gun violence, much of it gang-related, retaliatory, senseless and deadly.

That trend held through the end of 2018, as reporter Tim Hahn has detailed. Homicides in the city of Erie were up, from seven in 2017 to 11 in 2018. There were five fatal shootings in 2017 and seven in 2018. But a significant number of deaths were incidents of domestic violence, not gang activity. In another telling statistic, shots-fired calls plummeted from a high of 379 in 2014 to 137 in 2018. Incidents of individuals being shot dropped from 59 in 2017 to 35 in 2018.

The statistics validate the approach Unified Erie leaders took to reach across disciplinary boundaries and attack the violence at scale on three fronts — prevention, enforcement and re-entry. It also appears the strategy might be restoring frayed ties with police in poor and minority neighborhoods, as Police Chief Dan Spizarny and District Attorney Jack Daneri credited residents, in part, for the turnaround.

At the height of the violence, a lack of witness cooperation had hamstrung investigations. Incidents of witnesses recanting their statements to police or ditching court were rampant. Now, Daneri and Spizarny said, residents are increasingly lending aid. “They realize it is their neighborhoods being affected,” Spizarny said.

The 2018 statistics reflect laudable progress, but also darkly flag ongoing and new problems. Spizarny noted an increase in guns stolen, 69 to 76, and guns recovered, 154 to 163, from 2017 to 2018. That means officers are doing a good job of getting the guns off the streets, he said. But too many guns are being stolen from vehicles left unlocked, which, he said, “makes no sense.” Responsible gun ownership includes securing your firearms. With a click of a lock, you could save a life.

Secondly, and most seriously, the number of domestic killings — fatal violence inflicted by those who are in a relationship with their victims — should spur community action, just as the outbreak of gang violence did. As of late November, at least five of the city’s 11 homicides were domestic in nature, with another four occurring elsewhere in the county.

We have noted the many good efforts underway to combat domestic violence, but also in light of the escalation in 2018, called for a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach. We agree with Linda Lyons King, SafeNet executive director, who has called for systematic, community-wide analysis of the recent deaths in order to craft, Unified Erie-style, more effective interventions to, as she said, “end the carnage.”

—Erie Times News

We need grown-ups to end the federal government shutdown, Jan. 8

Is there a more depressing phrase than this in political parlance: “Both sides are playing to their base”?

It means that no one is willing to compromise — to compromise would be to cave, and who wants to be seen as caving?

That’s the state of play regarding the government shutdown right now. President Trump wants Congress to provide more than $5 billion to help build a southern border wall, which he promised to his supporters in 2016. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls any such wall “an immorality,” and says her caucus won’t give a dime toward it (no matter if it’s concrete or steel).

As conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg put it perfectly in an op-ed published in the Dec. 30 Sunday LNP, the battle is really being waged over symbolism. And one “of the problems with symbolic politics is that it’s hard to compromise, because symbolism enlists notions of honor and identity that leave little room for haggling.”

This is both true and unfortunate. Because this battle over symbolism has real-life consequences.

Our national parks remain open, for now, though visitors have reported overflowing trash receptacles and toilets. The scandal-beset former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had this suggestion for park visitors: “Grab a trash bag and take some trash out with you,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “In order to keep them open, everybody has to pitch in.”

People on social media invited Zinke to go first — “You lead the way, Mr. Zinke,” one Twitter user quipped. But Zinke had a point: Those parks belong to all of us; at the very least, we should take home any trash we generate (same goes when we’re at any beach, federally owned or not).

Unlike the national parks, the Smithsonian museums are closed, meaning that countless school trips to the National Air and Space Museum are now on hold. The Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park are also, sadly, closed.

More worryingly for those who rely on tax refunds to pay off bills, some 52,000 IRS employees — about 65 percent of the IRS workforce, according to the AP — have been furloughed.

Russell Vought, acting director of the White House budget office, told reporters Monday that “refunds will go out as normal.” We hope this is the case, but this seems like a hard slog, even if the IRS recalls some furloughed workers, as the AP reports it might.

And the AP reported Monday that small business owners “are increasingly feeling the impact of the partial government shutdown.” The Small Business Administration isn’t processing certifications or loan applications. Because small businesses are essential to the Lancaster County economy, this merits concern.

The implications for this county’s farmers are also worrying, especially as they face an array of other challenges, from tariffs to a falling demand for dairy products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that because of “a lapse in federal funding,” it needs to delay the release of important crop reports.

“The reports detail the size of the 2018 harvests of corn, soybean, wheat and other crops and give an early estimate for what farmers will plant in the upcoming season,” the AP explained. “Depending on the estimates, the price of the commodities can rise or fall as they show the current supply and forecast how many acres will be devoted to different crops in the coming months.”

That’s not the only bad news for farmers. As Reuters reported, the shutdown “has blocked assistance for many farmers, who at this time of year apply for federal loans as they pay bills due from the previous year and begin budgeting for next season’s planting. It is also affecting aid payments promised to allay the effects of the trade war.”

Bottom line: Before any more harm is done, someone needs to repair our broken government. We need more grown-ups in Washington — elected officials who are willing to put the good of the country before political calculation.

Congressman Lloyd Smucker tweeted this Dec. 29: “House Republicans, along with President Trump, are committed to keeping America safe. The President has been clear: securing our border — which includes obtaining sufficient funding for the border wall — is a non-negotiable priority.”

The word “nonnegotiable” isn’t helpful. Smucker, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and a lawmaker who had a reputation for working across the aisle when he was in the Pennsylvania Senate, should be encouraging compromise for the sake of his constituents.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times recently that the notion of a solid border wall had been abandoned “early on in the (Trump) administration.”

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said — it would be a physical barrier in some places, but technological improvements “across the board.”

So talk about that. Negotiate about that. Work for substantive and comprehensive immigration reform, which both Democrats and Republicans agree is necessary. But stop haggling over the symbolism of the battle now being waged.

“In a fight over bread, you can agree on half a loaf, because half is better than nothing,” Jonah Goldberg observed. “But with symbols, it’s difficult to escape zero-sum thinking.”

Only one side wins in a zero-sum game. But the American economy isn’t a game. And ours is not a winner-takes-all nation.

—LNP

Attacking climate change: cap and trade is a good place to start, Jan. 9

Whether in air, on land, or at sea, the evidence of climate change is, well, evident.

The rising level of the oceans, shrinking glacial ice caps, decreasing wildlife species, damaging storms, scorching heat waves — the impacts are undeniable by any rational standard. Yet parochial interests have been a barrier to reaching a plan forward for the United States and the global community.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in America.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday he intends to do something about it.

He signed an executive order setting a first-ever statewide goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions: by 26 percent by the year 2025 and by 80 percent by the year 2050 (compared to 2005 levels).

A group of some five dozen stakeholders is ready to help him achieve his goals with a market-driven solution that makes sense.

The Clean Air Council — a coalition of businesses and lawyers, ministers and municipal officials — proposes to gradually reduce to the point of elimination the greenhouse gases generated by the biggest sources. And they propose to do it within 30 years.

The council argues that Pennsylvania is required by its own constitution as well as its air pollution laws to do this. Not everyone agrees on that legal interpretation. But that’s irrelevant, especially in light of the governor’s executive order.

The need for a better environment is not debatable.

The Clean Air Council has a logical plan and it has been submitted by petition to the state Department of Environmental Protection, sparing the agency the task of crafting regulation.

The council’s plan keys on support for the state’s struggling nuclear plants — “clean” producers of power — and contains incentives for business to jump on the bandwagon. A trading market — known as cap and trade — would help the state’s nuclear plants keep the lights on and generate buying andselling in private industry — always a good thing with side benefits for the state. It would work like this: Limits (caps) would be set on industrial plants (power, steel, glass) that generate pollution. But, plants can buy or sell (trade) emission allowances through a government-operated auction, which could generate a slice of pie for Harrisburg, too. The Clean Air Council also has proposed additional economic incentives to reduce emissions or earn more allowances that can be sold.

Sounds a lot like capitalism ... and it’s been done before and with success. Sulfur dioxide pollution, which causes acid rain, was reduced by a national cap-and-trade program in the 1990s. The greenhouse cap-and-trade proposal put forth now in Pennsylvania is similar to one that has been operating successfully in California since 2013.

The cap-and-trade program being peddled in Harrisburg currently calls for allowable emissions to decline by 3 percent from 2016 levels until they reach zero in 2052. This is more aggressive than the governor’s executive order but why not shoot for the stars (through an unpolluted sky).

It’s up to Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board, which sets environmental rules and regulations, to embrace the proposal. The 20-member board is made up of the leaders of nearly a dozen state agencies, a citizens advisory council and four members of the state Senate and House.

Everyone agrees there is a problem. The governor has made the solution a priority. The Clean Air Council has come up with a market-driven way to get from here to there.

—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Democracy depends on voter access, so why is it so hard? Jan. 8

With Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s declaration that she’ll seek the Democratic nomination for president, election mania officially kicked off. It’s almost two years away, but the 2020 election, with a problematic partisan divide at the forefront of American politics, is shaping up to be the bout of the century as voters head to the polls to elect the president, all 435 House representatives, and a third of the U.S. senators.

Politicians, regardless of party, should have a vested interest in getting their voters to the polls. And, by showing up in record numbers for the 2018 midterm elections, voters have made it very clear that they want a say in their government.

That’s why we’re pleased to see that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf are taking steps to help as many eligible voters participate as possible.

New Jersey has a head start. Legislators hope to resurrect ideas blocked by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2015.

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) introduced a bill earlier this session calling for online voter registration and early voting. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has offered his support. Both houses should get the bill moving soon, especially since Murphy says he’s on board. Greenwald recently told Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai that in New Jersey, “it is not an issue of suppression as much as it is of trying to modernize the system.”

But in Pennsylvania, suppression has been an issue.

In 2014, Commonwealth Court wisely killed a voter ID law that would have made it difficult for minorities, the elderly, poor, young, urban, and rural voters to get to cast ballots because they didn’t have acceptable state identification cards, like a driver’s license, or easy access to PennDot centers, to obtain them. Given that history, Wolf’s push for making voting easier is likely to meet opposition in the legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, many of whom supported the failed voter ID law.

Wolf wants to update the state’s absentee ballot system, which has such unreasonably tight deadlines that ballots come in late and thousands are disregarded. Wolf would also allow eligible voters to register on Election Day, and have automatic voter registration when people apply for drivers’ licenses. Before mouthing their opposition to the Democratic governor’s ideas, Republicans should recognize that they’ve got much to gain. The more voters who participate, the more likely it is that their voters’ voices will be heard.

And voters around the country are speaking up. In 2018, Florida’s electorate restored voting rights to convicted felons when they complete their sentences. Nevada voted for automatic voter registration, and both Maryland and Michigan voted for Election Day registration.

Our democracy depends on ensuring that the widest variety of viewpoints are represented in government. If some people are shut out of elections, we all suffer.

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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