- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:



If police caught you carrying a marijuana cigarette in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, chances are you would have been arrested, fingerprinted and perhaps jailed.

If you had been stopped for the same offense the next day, you would have been given a $25 ticket. Thursday was the day the nation’s capital joined 16 states by decriminalizing marijuana.

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Decriminalization means reducing the penalties for possession, not doing away with them. In most cases, it makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanor and imposes a fine.

While Pennsylvania is rarely at the forefront when it comes to liberalizing laws involving controlled substances, decriminalization has been discussed in the Legislature - and even approved by Philadelphia City Council, although Mayor Michael Nutter has yet to decide whether to sign the statute.

Since June 2010, Philadelphia has treated possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as a summary offense punishable with a $200 fine and a three-hour class on drug abuse.

Under the new statute, Philadelphians caught with up to an ounce (30 grams) of marijuana would not be arrested. After they paid a $25 fine, they’d have the charge expunged from their record. The marijuana likely would be confiscated.

That is similar to laws in Washington, D.C., New York state and Ohio.

The D.C. law removes all criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce. Those stopped for possession are given a ticket - a civil fine - for $25. Nor are police allowed to search people just because they can smell marijuana. However, smoking marijuana in public or possessing large amounts of marijuana remains a felony.

Maryland will soon join the fold. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed legislation in April that is slated to take effect on Oct. 1. That will impose civil fines on those who possess less than 10 grams of marijuana.

An argument against decriminalization is that it will lead to increased use. But a host of studies dispute that.

And while states have decriminalized marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law. In Washington, D.C., police might ticket people with marijuana, but federal authorities can still make arrests.

Advocates make a good case for decriminalization. It removes the consumer from the criminal justice system, while maintaining criminal penalties against those who sell or traffic large quantities of the drug. It keeps nonviolent people out of jail and reduces court and incarceration costs.

And it frees up police to do other work. Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney, who introduced the decriminalization statute, said police in that city spend 17,000 hours per year on marijuana possession arrests.

Newspaper records show that since Jan. 1, police in Lancaster city have charged 81 people with possession. Although some have been in possession of large amounts of marijuana, others had less than an ounce on them.

We’re prepared to let Colorado and Washington state experiment with legalization.

Decriminalization, on the other hand, is an issue that Pennsylvania politicians should strongly consider.

- Lancaster Newspapers.



It is difficult to find any good that came from the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

The reputations of a great university and its legendary football coach were damaged. The political career of our governor hit an iceberg of Titanic proportions.

And the victims’ tales of terrible abuse - and the years of having to live with the pain it caused - were heartbreaking, especially when you consider that some of them had been abused after authorities were (or should have been) alerted to Mr. Sandusky’s predatory tendencies.

But at least the Sandusky case has increased public awareness of child sexual abuse. And the scandal has led to changes aimed at making sure a monster like Mr. Sandusky is no longer allowed to prowl university campuses with impunity.

Penn State has adopted a number of changes in its policies on reporting child abuse and screening employees. The university now mandates annual training on reporting child abuse for all of its employees. Any employee who fails to report child abuse faces strict disciplinary action. Employees, contractors and students who have direct contact with minors on campus must pass a criminal background check, in addition to the mandated training.

And this week, Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities have adopted a similar policy for the system’s 14 schools. The policy will go into effect in January, but mandatory training is expected to begin before then, the Associated Press reported. (Penn State is considered a “state-related” university and is not part of the state-owned system, which includes, among others, Bloomsburg, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.)

The state-owned universities will require training in first-aid and the detection and reporting of child abuse, the AP reported. The policy also extends mandatory reporter status to all employees, contractors and volunteers.

And crucially, the new policy will require employees to report suspected abuse to both the state Department of Public Welfare and to a designated person at the university - the double notification acting as a fail safe to avoid the Sandusky situation where Penn State officials are accused of essentially covering up the crimes.

The new policies also bring the state-owned universities into line with changes in the law, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in April. The changes expanded the definition of those mandated to report abuse, increased penalties for those who fail to report abuse and empowered the state’s licensing board to make child abuse training a requirement for mandatory reporters.

All of these changes should be effective tools in preventing and reporting child abuse. They are specific and address holes in university policies and the law that permitted a predator to have free rein. And they avoid the human tendency to overreact in the wake of tragic circumstances.

The changes are long-overdue and come too late for Sandusky’s victims.

But if they help prevent another monster from destroying children’s lives, it will be some small measure of good that has come from this horror.

-Daily Local News of West Chester.



To the surprise of virtually no one, a proposal to cut the size of the state legislature never came up for a vote before lawmakers went on their annual summer recess.

The proposal could come up for a vote when legislators return in the fall, but it will be a short session with a lot of other important issues on the agenda. It’s entirely possible that the measure won’t come up for a vote, which means the process will have to start over next January when a new state legislative session begins.

And it’s a long process to start with. Any change to the state Constitution must be approved in consecutive legislative sessions and then by voters in a statewide referendum. The legislation in the Senate called for the downsizing to take effect after the 2020 legislative redistricting.

There had been some optimism that the cuts could become law after the state House of Representatives passed a measure last December, calling for a reduction of 50 seats in the House and five in the Senate. It appeared something might finally happen in June when the Senate’s Government Committee gave its approval to the cuts.

However, from there things got bogged down as only things can get bogged down in the Pennsylvania State Legislature.

Senate President Joe Scarnati pushed a separate Senate bill seeking to also eliminate the lieutenant governor’s office, two justices of the seven-member state Supreme Court and four positions on the 15-member Superior Court in addition to the elimination of 50 seats in the House and five in the Senate. The savings were pegged at $6 million in salaries alone, not counting fringe benefits.

Those amendments, however, failed, with Democrats leading the charge against the additional cuts. Republicans and Democrats then accused each other of not really wanting to reduce the size of the state Legislature.

A full vote on the measure was promised by Senate Republicans, but it never came to pass, as it was simply put on hold along with numerous other measures until the fall.

Like we said earlier, the inaction came as no surprise. However, we can’t say we were entirely disappointed with the lack of movement. We have mixed feelings on the bill. While we like the savings that would come with the elimination of the legislative seats, we do agree with the critics that it could hurt rural areas.

Greene County, for instance, has had its own state legislator for a number of years, while Fayette County has had as many as six legislators at one time. If there’s a reduction in the number of legislators, there might only be one legislator for both Fayette and Greene counties.

What we would like to see happen is a reduction in the number of staffers for legislators. Currently there are approximately 2,700 staffers, which take up a good portion of the legislature’s $277 million budget.

The problem is that the staffers are assigned at the whim of the leaders of both parties. Some lawmakers have 10-15 staffers while others only have five or 10. That makes no sense. Each legislator should have the same number of staffers, except for those in leadership who should have more people working under them.

There are about 10 and half staffers per lawmaker now. If that number was cut in half, that will still give each lawmaker five staffers, which seems about right. Keep in mind that a number of legislators, including former state Rep. Bill DeWeese, got into all kinds of legal trouble for having staffers doing campaign work on taxpayers’ time. A reduction in the number of staffers certainly should alleviate that problem.

Of course, the idea that legislators will voluntarily reduce the number of people working for them is about as likely as lawmakers voting to put themselves out of a job. We all know the chances of either happening are right there with slim and none.

-The (Uniontown) Herald-Standard.



Few people will argue this area could do better at keeping our best and brightest from bolting as soon as they have their sheepskins, and it’s hard to blame college graduates for doing so. After all, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area held the notorious distinction of highest unemployment rate among Pennsylvania’s 14 largest labor markets for more than four years.

And many jobs here don’t require college degrees. A Times Leader review of state labor data last month found the five fastest-growing occupations in Luzerne County are expected to be cashier, retail salesperson, waiter/waitress, registered nurse and food preparer.

A look at the state’s “High Priority Occupations” list for Luzerne County was equally discouraging. Of 2,202 projected annual openings in those jobs - considered higher skill and paying sustainable wages - 64 percent required no more than a high school degree, seeking on-the-job training instead.

With grim data like that, the article on The Times Leader’s front page Sunday offered a genuine silver lining. A snapshot look at 12 students and graduates from the region showed that one already had found work in Wilkes-Barre while four others definitely intend to stay in the area.

Even among the remaining seven, the notion of staying at least for a while or returning after making a success of it elsewhere was generally palatable.

Those results jibe with data provided by King’s College from its 2013 alumni survey, which showed about one-third of local graduates found work in Luzerne, Lackawanna or Wyoming counties.

It’s far from perfect. Ideally, we would not only be creating jobs and an environment that enticed graduates to stay, we’d be luring graduates away from other areas. But it shows our region has some strong draws, a good base to build on if we want to shrink our “brain drain.”

What are those draws? Long-term residents probably have an idea. We tend to generate a sense of place, family and duty here. Consider Cemah Tudae-Torboh, a King’s College graduate going to work for an area firm as an information technology manager.

Torboh conceded there’s good reason to head out and “shoot for the stars,” but decided to stay here because, at least for him, “It’s just a smart choice to sit in one spot and pay your dues.”

Or consider Robert Griffith, a sophomore at The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton: “I really, truly believe in this area, and I want to give back to it in any way that I can.”

Then there’s Jodie Fortwangler who, at 27, became a licensed practical nurse through the Hazleton Area Career Center. “My family is here,” Fortwangler said. “I’m pretty confident it’ll be okay around here.”

There are good reasons to work and live here. And we do have some reasons for college graduates to stay, though not enough. What can we do?

It’s a complex mix of things, to be sure, with no sure-fire formula. Cleaning abandoned coal land for a better appearance, eliminating a deeply ingrained sense of “it’s who you know” brought repeatedly to the surface through our many corruption scandals, and shedding an image, deserved or not, that this is the place you move a company to when you need low-wage employees all could help.

Andrew Chew, a research analyst at The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development, which maintains offices in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, offered another idea businesses that already are here could consider if they haven’t already embraced it: Adapt to the new expectations of flextime, nontraditional benefits and working remotely.

“If our business community, if our elected officials can promote those things in our communities,” said Chew, “it’s going to be a lot a more of an attractive place for young people to stay and begin their careers.”

___ (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader



It was a cash-for-favors sting operation that raised far more questions than it answered.

It began in 2010 when Republican Tom Corbett was attorney general and it targeted Democratic and Republican state lawmakers When it was brought to a halt by Corbett’s successor, Democrat Kathleen Kane, in 2013 it had reportedly snagged four lawmakers and a former traffic court judge — all Democrats from Philadelphia.

At the time, Kane said she was shutting down the operation - even though the lawmakers were caught on tape accepting cash, gifts or money orders - because the investigation was too botched to prosecute. Among the concerns she cited were: 1) the informant who delivered the payouts - a lobbyist working undercover for the attorney general’s office - lacked credibility, and 2) unconventional law enforcement methods were used to build the case.

Last month, Seth Williams, Philadelphia district attorney, said his office empaneled a grand jury to revisit the case.

On Monday, activist Gene Stilp, who filed complaints against the four lawmakers with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, said he received a letter from the ethics commission confirming it was conducting a full investigation.

Kane has repeatedly maintained she made the right decision, but questions about whether this case was abandoned for political reasons have not gone away.

This two-pronged approach - the grand jury and the ethics commission probe - should answer lingering questions.

Grand juries enjoy broad investigative powers. And while the ethics commission does not have the power to impose criminal penalties, it can fine public officials for violating state ethics laws and can refer cases to law enforcement for possible criminal charges.

This case has done nothing to bolster public confidence in our political system or a criminal justice system that should punish politicians when they break the law.

Together, the grand jury and the ethics commission have the power to hold these people accountable and to restore the public’s faith.

__ The (Easton) Express-Times.

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