Erie Times-News. Feb. 14, 2021.

Editorial: Carl Knight’s story underscores importance of criminal justice reform

The term “criminal justice reform,” dry, legalistic, fails to evoke the existential urgency of the work.

This movement for change, a rare American cause around which many on the left and right unite, does not play out on paper, but in real human lives — the hearts, minds and captive bodies of defendants, and the prospects for their families and communities, which both crime and misguided justice policies harm. In a country governed by the rule of law and founded on the yet-unrealized promise of equal justice, it is not something we can afford to botch.

Take Carl Knight, who shares his story in an exclusive interview published by the Erie Times-News. This 49-year-old Erie man made headlines two decades ago when a high-profile federal prosecutor and an FBI task force identified him as the kingpin of a drug-dealing ring that smuggled into the region 458 pounds of crack cocaine worth $20.8 million. Other white drug kingpins were prosecuted in Erie for powder cocaine and marijuana, but none except Knight, and later, another Black defendant in a different crack cocaine case, drew mandatory life sentences for their crimes. Then punished at a ratio of 100:1, dealing a little over a teaspoon of crack could net a sentence as severe as someone dealing a pound of powder.

Knight, raised “without a foundation,” said he fell into the wrong crowd. A young father and former high school basketball standout, he tried his hand at odd jobs, a sandwich shop, selling clothes, and also ferrying vast quantities of crack from New York City to Erie secreted in votive candles.

“You think you’re strong and you know what you are doing,” he said.

Then came the indictment and trial, the federal jury that convicted him after 40 minutes of deliberation, and the sentence in August 1999 that effectively ended his life at 28. Or so it appeared.

Knight had no hope of regaining his freedom upon his entry to prison. Near the end of his first year, he said, he experienced an epiphany, chiefly, the damage he had caused Erie and his children. Prison boils down your options, he said. Double down on criminality. Give up. Lose your mind. “When you see that pill line, it’s sad to see,” he said.

Knight chose to follow, instead, the example set by inmates, some with multiple life sentences, who crafted purposeful, prayerful lives. He took nearly four dozen classes from HVAC skills to parenting. He exercised. Most of all, he prayed. “My Bible,” he said, “That was my medicine.”

He mentored young people, helped other inmates prepare for reentry to their communities and harbored hope. Defendants serving less time for violent crimes often remarked on his life sentence. And slowly, the nation, too, awoke to the catastrophic legacy of tough-on-crime policies, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that created harsh crack cocaine penalties that disproportionately affected Black defendants.

Mass incarceration did not repair lives and restore communities, but helped create an underclass hamstrung by criminal records that erect barriers to the building blocks of productive life — employment, housing and education. Worse, it took a devastating, disparate toll on communities of color already at historic, unacceptable disadvantage.

Neither was it practical. In 2019, Knight’s lawyer estimated Knight’s stay in prison had already cost the government more than $600,000.

Knight watched the successive waves of reform, including the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and repeatedly appealed his sentence. Finally, the bipartisan First Step Act signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 gave him a path to resentencing.

Senior U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone in January deemed the 22 years Knight had served sufficient. And coming full circle? The prosecutor who took down Knight’s operation, John J. Trucilla, now an Erie County judge, supported Knight’s release.

Knight’s story is worth studying and his reentry worth supporting not just in its own right, but also because it is instructive for communities across the country as thousands freed by the First Step Act return home. Not everyone will have achieved conversion like Knight and the odds of successful community reintegration are tough.

We must try — as Knight has — to make things right.

Knight’s release offers redemption beyond warehousing and punishment. Too many young people commit serious crimes, as Knight once did, blindered to their own and the community’s peril. Knight returns home prepared, with the help of local pastor and community leader Bishop Dwane Brock of Victory Christian Center and Trucilla, to offer young people the hard-earned wisdom he wishes someone had shared with him.

Erie and the nation stands at a crossroads. It confronts a criminal justice system in need of ongoing reform and reimagination and also a groundswell of will to uproot the intolerable legacy of white supremacy that tips the scales not just in the courts, but workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and more. Men like Knight, their life experiences and insights, stand at the center. See them. Hear them. Learn.

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Johnstown Tribune Democrat. Feb. 13, 2021.

Editorial: Optimism, disappointment, then new hope for abuse victims

Adult victims of child sexual abuse have been riding a roller-coaster of emotions in recent weeks – joy over long-awaited news that a Constitutional amendment might go to voters this spring, then deep disappointment when they learned that the Department of State had failed to advertise that move early enough to get it on the ballot.

Now, just maybe, a renewed glimmer of hope that they won’t have to wait two more years for a chance at justice.

After the state department of state fumbled its opportunity to put a Constitutional amendment that would open a window for child sexual abuse lawsuits before the voters, the state House is picking up the ball.

Led by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, the House is expected to vote soon on an emergency measure to get the abuse amendment back onto the ballot in May.

Otherwise, the proposal would need to pass legislative approval on consecutive years for a second time – in 2021 and 2022 – and then go before voters in 2023.

Johnstown’s Shaun Dougherty has been among the leaders of the movement to open a window for abuse victims to file lawsuits against individuals who abused them and organizations that allowed the crimes to occur.

Dougherty, a victim of abuse by a priest when he was young, called the news of the state department blunder a “kick in the teeth.”

That mistake cost Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar her job, and advocates naturally feared that the issue couldn’t be on the ballot before 2023.

As our John Finnerty reported, Rozzi announced that House leaders had agreed to hold a vote on whether to try to get the question on the ballot in May.

That would require passing the measure as an emergency constitutional amendment.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, also backed the emergency move, which House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said has bipartisan support.

Benninghoff’s office said if both the House and Senate pass the proposal by April 18, the question would make the May primary ballot.

The legislature has seldom taken the extreme step of voting on an emergency Constitutional amendment, and rightly so. The option is for extreme situations of widespread impact. One instance was in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes devastated much of the state and lawmakers sought a quick emergency relief option.

House Democratic Leader Joanne McClinton, D-Philadelphia, called the abuse window error a “unique circumstance” that would justify that step now.

“I feel terrible for our House colleagues Mark Rozzi and Jim Gregory, who have put a human face on this injustice and poured their hearts into repairing the damage done by perpetrators of abuse,” McClinton said. “All the men and women who were preyed upon when they were children deserve a better outcome.”

The final result may hinge on the state Senate, which could tackle the idea short of the goal line.

Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, would not say that the Senate would support

the idea if the House votes in favor of an emergency amendment.

“We have not committed to any specific legislative strategy,” she said, “but are committed to supporting the victims who were impacted by the department’s extreme carelessness.”

We urge the House to pass the emergency measure and the Senate to do so as well.

Let’s put this issue before the voters – and not after waiting two more years.

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LNP/Lancaster Online. Feb. 11, 2021.

Editorial: 3 matters of transparency: The good, the bad and the ugly

The Issue: Transparency is at the foundation of good government. And seeking transparency is an essential role of newspapers, including this one. Today we examine three matters relating to transparency.

The good

A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel ruled Tuesday that the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office must disclose more information about its drug asset forfeiture program.

As Mike Wereschagin of LNP Media Group’s The Caucus reported, “The three-judge panel ruled the office must disclose the names of people who won public auctions of seized assets. Former District Attorney Craig Stedman, now a Common Pleas Court judge, fought for years to keep details of the program secret, including his use of program funds to lease an SUV.”

LNP ' LancasterOnline Executive Editor Tom Murse said, “We look forward to using these public records, once shielded from public view by the former district attorney, to report more thoroughly on how Lancaster County uses civil-asset forfeiture. The court’s ruling is a victory for transparency in government and, thus, a victory for all citizens of Pennsylvania.”

The LNP ' LancasterOnline Editorial Board has argued repeatedly that more details about the handling and processing of seized assets ought to be made public. We’re pleased that Commonwealth Court judges agree.

As we wrote in June 2019: “It’s not comfortable when others ask to check our work. Stedman seems to bristle at the notion more than most.”

This was evident, we noted, since LNP ' LancasterOnline reported in March 2019 “that Stedman had spent more than $21,000 in civil forfeiture funds to lease and maintain a 2016 Toyota Highlander. By law, civil forfeiture funds are to be used to fight drug crime.”

We wrote that Lancaster County residents and taxpayers are entitled to know how the district attorney’s office uses civil forfeiture funds. And “official records often play an essential part in conveying, in numbers and documented facts, the realities of government in action.”

As Wereschagin noted, “Stedman had argued that disclosing the names of who won his office’s public auctions for seized items would put them at risk, an argument the judges rejected Tuesday. Anyone can attend the auctions themselves, including the owners of the forfeited property, the judges noted in their ruling.”

The judges smartly pointed out that there is a “significant public interest in ensuring that law enforcement officials not participate as bidders in the auction to their personal benefit.”

Kirby West, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that argued the case for LNP ' LancasterOnline, said Tuesday’s ruling paves the way for deeper scrutiny of similar programs across the state.

Such scrutiny is essential and long overdue. Beginning in Lancaster County.

The bad

We know from the reporting of LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker that the Lancaster County commissioners approved a deal Wednesday with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and other health care systems to create a mass COVID-19 vaccination site that could open as soon as mid-March.

We know that the Manheim Township staffing agency TriStarr is hiring employees for the mass vaccination site.

We know that the former Bon-Ton building at Park City Center fits the criteria necessary for the vaccination site: It’s within Lancaster city limits. It’s near major roads. It has the parking lots and interior space to accommodate a site where COVID-19 vaccines would be administered from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

And, as Walker reported, an event “scheduled to be hosted at the former store in April has been canceled because ‘the space will be used for something COVID-related,’ the event’s Facebook page said.”

Moreover, the hosting company for two other events scheduled to use the former Bon-Ton building told LNP ' LancasterOnline that contracts to lease the space were unresolved — the company was told the county is looking to use the space for a mass vaccination site.

Nevertheless, the Lancaster County commissioners won’t confirm or deny if the former Bon-Ton is going to be the vaccination site. Even though the project likely will be paid for with federal and state funds — in other words, taxpayer money.

This is not a celebrity wedding we’re talking about. It’s a government project.

Commissioner Josh Parsons spends a lot of time on Twitter criticizing Gov. Tom Wolf. We wish he’d spend that time making plans for a county public health department. And perhaps considering the fact that details about something as critical as a mass vaccination site shouldn’t be withheld from the public.

The ugly

Which is not say that Wolf doesn’t deserve criticism.

As Spotlight PA pointed out this week, the Wolf administration has declined to provide additional details about how the Pennsylvania Department of State — which oversees elections —recently failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment in keeping with state law.

As that nonpartisan newsroom noted, “The error prevents the question from appearing on the ballot in May.”

This appalling mistake “devastated clergy sexual abuse survivors and others who are time-barred from bringing litigation under the statute of limitations,” Spotlight PA reported, “and led to the swift resignation of the agency’s top official, Kathy Boockvar.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of State told Spotlight PA that the agency had an “established practice,” but no “formal process for managing the advertising of constitutional amendments due to their relative infrequency.”

Wolf has described the mistake as “human error.” The agency, he said, would “immediately institute new controls, including additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments, to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future.”

Those changes are clearly necessary, but as Spotlight PA noted, the Wolf administration has refused to explain exactly how the mistake happened, “who else was responsible for the error, and whether any other disciplinary action or terminations had resulted.”

This is not the transparency that Wolf promised when he ran for governor.

It is not the kind of conduct that engenders trust.

We appreciated Boockvar accepting responsibility for the mistake — as we’re seeing in the impeachment trial in Washington, D.C., there’s a notable lack of such accountability among public officials these days — but her resignation didn’t end the matter.

Wolf has asked the Office of State Inspector General to investigate the mistake. “Inspector general reports are not released to the public, unless the governor directs them to be,” Spotlight PA noted.

The governor needs to make good on his repeated pledges of transparency and make the report public.

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Scranton Tribune. Feb. 15, 2021.

Editorial: Resuming war on opioid addiction

The COVID-19 pandemic’s myriad effects on society and the economy have accelerated Pennsylvania’s other tragic public health emergency — deadly opioid addiction.

State Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith disclosed recently that 2020 might have eclipsed 2017 as the state’s worst year for drug overdose deaths. In 2017, more than 5,400 Pennsylvanians died from overdoses, mostly of opioids. Due to increased treatment, new prescribing protocols, prescription tracking and broad access to the opioid antidote naloxone, the death toll fell to 4,400 in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago.

The state officially has recorded 3,954 overdose deaths for 2020, but Smith said that count is far from complete and is certain to rise. In 2019, the daily Pennsylvania death toll from overdoses had declined to 11 people a day in 2019 from 14 people a day in 2017. Smith said the incomplete 2020 figures stand at 13 a day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 81,000 overdose deaths nationally for 2020, a record.

Simply put, the pandemic has wiped out significant progress that the state government, the medical community and activists had made against opioid addiction.

Social isolation, unemployment, increased poverty and reduced access to treatment all have contributed to the higher death toll, according to Smith.

As increasing vaccine distribution begins to turn the tide against COVID-19, state and local governments and the health care community must prepare to pick up the fight against the earlier crisis, just as aggressively as in the past.

State lawmakers, using proceeds from pending settlements with pharmaceutical companies and other entities that spawned the epidemic, should ensure that the agencies and people on the front line of the crisis have all the resources that they need, and that anyone seeking short- or long-term treatment to control their addiction has ready access.

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Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Feb. 12, 2021.

Editorial: Our View: Misericordia testing program could serve as wider model

From the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak in this country and this state about a year ago, the nation has constantly been unwilling or unable to mobilize sufficient people and resources to conduct testing sufficient enough to really keep track of the virus spread, and in turn to effectively contain it.

Even now, as we nationally conduct well over 1 million tests a day, experts warn it is insufficient, particularly in the wake of new variants that so far appear to be more contagious than the original.

In that light, news that Misericordia University has managed to expand on-campus testing dramatically thanks to a generous donation is not only a plus for the area but could serve as a model on how to really ramp up testing nationwide.

The school purchased new equipment that is being used to test about 25% of the university community each week, as well as to regularly test student athletes. The process has been sped up and the cost was driven down by doing “batch testing,” combining saliva samples from five individuals into one small testing container. All told, 70 people can be tested by the new equipment, with the samples processed and result determined in three hours or less.

This is not to be confused with diagnostic testing of individuals with suspected symptoms or other situations justifying concerns. This is “surveillance testing,” meant to keep tabs on the disease even in people with no symptoms. If one of those batches of 5 samples shows a positive test, there is enough individual saliva samples left to run individual tests on all five to determine who sparked the positive result in the batch test.

And there’s no nose swab needed. Participants expectorate about a thimble-full of saliva into a sterile tube, put it in a plastic bat that can be sealed, and drop it into a cooler for transport to the testing facilities in the campus’s shiny, state-of-the-art Frank M. and Dorothea Henry Science Center.

The main goal is to find asymptomatic cases, which have been a serious part of the community spread problem all along. After all, when people feel symptoms they are likely to self-quarantine. No symptoms means no knowledge of risk of spread and no impetus to isolate for 14 days.

Misericordia is only using the new capabilities for those on campus, but several people involved voiced expectation that, once everything is worked out, the new testing ability could be made available to other organizations and people.

If that happens, our area and our county could make tremendous strides in finally getting the upper hand in the pandemic war. We, through Misericordia, could even serve as archetype for similar testing expansion everywhere.

Special praise goes to Mark and Lorraine Alles of Harveys Lake for the donation of $300,000 used to purchase equipment and set the whole system in motion. In the midst of a pandemic that has cost so many lives, this seems like a true act of selfless concern for others.

The pandemic has upended lives for a year, and even with vaccines rolling out at higher and higher rates, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is likely to be reached at best this fall, probably much later. The fight requires using all the tools in the box, and this could be one worth duplicating in other areas.

END