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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

July 2, 2014
Associated Press

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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SMART, HISTORIC RULING ON CELLPHONE PRIVACY

In 2012, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told a university audience that the challenge for the Supreme Court for the next 50 years would be: "How do we adapt old, established rules to new technology?"

Recently, the court proved itself equal to that challenge in at least one context. It ruled unanimously that, except in extraordinary cases, police must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of an arrested person's cellphone.

This is a historic decision because allowing police to sift through the contents of a modern smartphone gives them access to a wealth of information about a person's most private and personal affairs, from emails to family photos to bank statements. As Roberts wrote in his magisterial majority opinion: "With all they contain and all they may reveal, (cellphones) hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life.'"

In the case of David L. Riley, a San Diego man arrested on weapons charges, those privacies included a photograph police found on his phone showing him in front of a car used in a drive-by shooting. Riley was eventually convicted of attempted murder.

You don't need a law degree to believe that allowing police to search through a cellphone without a warrant is an "unreasonable search" of the kind prohibited by the 4th Amendment. But to reach that conclusion, Roberts had to wrestle with a 1973 decision that gave police wide discretion to search people they arrested-- including packages in their pockets -- even if the search wasn't necessary to disarm the suspect or prevent the destruction of evidence.

Rather than overruling that decision, Roberts declined to extend its reasoning to cellphones, which contain the sort of records that would have been stored in private homes at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted. "The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought," Roberts wrote.

—The (Hanover) Evening Sun

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LEGISLATIVE MISCHIEF: STATE'S CARBON PLAN SHOULD BE DEVISED BY EXPERTS

Opponents of President Barack Obama's plan to combat carbon pollution might sermonize about choice and control, but a bill that passed the state House of Representatives Tuesday could unwittingly undermine Pennsylvanians' ability to chart their own future.

Under federal guidelines issued in June, the state Department of Environmental Protection must submit a plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how Pennsylvania will cut emissions from existing power plants by almost a third by 2030.

But House Bill 2354 from state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene County, would impose a number of constraints on the state plan, notably the requirement that it be approved by the General Assembly first.

Requiring such legislative approval not only would allow politics to undercut the work of the state's authorities on Pennsylvania energy usage, but it also would increase the chance that the state will miss the deadline for submitting a plan on time. Then the federal government could impose its own plan on Pennsylvanians, an outcome no one wants.

The bill now moves to the state Senate.

Giving legislators the final say on the plan could also result in the state submitting to the same special interests that lawmakers serve. Industries would be able to influence the plan at the expense of its protection for Pennsylvanians, their resources and environment.

No matter how much legislators huff and puff, the Clean Air Act is the law of the land, and climate change is a reality that the world must address. The bill seems motivated by either political opportunism or scientific denial, declaring, "reasonably priced reliable sources of electric power generated in this Commonwealth are vital to the health, safety and welfare" of its residents.

The EPA's Clean Power Plan, which seeks to prevent 6,600 deaths, cut carbon emissions by 30 percent and reduce particle pollution by 25 percent, is a huge step forward for America and the environment. It should not be a step backward for Pennsylvania because of a bill that invites legislative interference.

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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RECIDIVISM DROP GOOD FOR STATE

Pennsylvania was one of eight states recently recognized for making progress in reducing the number of inmates who were back in state prisons within three years of release.

A report by the Justice Center of the Council of Governments, released earlier this month, found that Pennsylvania's recidivism rate, three years after inmates were released in 2007, was 43.9 percent.

Three years after inmates were released in 2010, that rate dropped to 40.8 percent.

"When you translate that into raw numbers, we're talking about 500 fewer people going back to prison, which is halfway to building a new prison," Michael Thompson, director of the justice center, said in an announcement about the report.

Results like that make it sound like we're moving in the right direction, and we hope that's the case.

A little more than a year ago, a benchmark report released by the state Department of Corrections indicated the need for a more comprehensive analysis when talking about recidivism.

"To get a true picture of whether our state prison is meeting its goal of reducing future crime, we need to look at more than just the reincarceration of an individual," state Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said.

"We need to look at rearrests as well to see the whole picture of how and when individuals come into contact again with the criminal justice system," he added.

A finding in the correction department's February 2013 report, which included statistics dating back to 2000, revealed that approximately 6 of every 10 Pennsylvania inmates recidivate when recidivism is defined as being rearrested or reincarcerated within three years of being released from prison.

When the February 2013 report came out, we described the 6 out of 10 ratio as too high and unacceptable. Our position has not changed.

That's too many inmates returning to a corrections system that failed to make a difference.

But the latest study by the Justice Center highlights efforts such as its Recidivism Risk Reduction Incentive program, commonly referred to as Triple R-I, as one of the reasons behind the drop in recidivism that study reported.

Through Triple R-I, some non-violent offenders can have their sentences reduced for good behavior and for participating in efforts aimed at reducing the risk factors that could put them back in prison.

The Justice Center's report also credited the state for introducing performance incentives in the form of additional funds to operators of halfway houses who reduce recidivism.

Before that incentive was introduced, a study found that inmates released to halfway houses had higher rates of recidivism. Since introducing the incentive, recidivism has dropped 16 percent among residents of halfway houses.

We hope Pennsylvania is on the right track to reduce rearrests and reincarceration.

The cost of our state's correction system has burgeoned to more than $2 billion annually at a time when state revenue is down. We need alternatives to reincarceration and so do some inmates.

— The (Altoona) Mirror.

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STEEL MUSEUM SHOULD HOLD OFF ON SPENDING UNTIL AG WEIGHS IN

The group attempting to resurrect a National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem is hoping to get to a long-delayed opening with two new sources of revenue — a $3 million gift and the proposed conversion of a decades-old $5.5 million fund set up by Bethlehem Steel employees to indemnify them from lawsuits after the corporation's demise.

Those numbers qualify as progress toward this beleaguered project, but it's important to remember this nonprofit board never had a huge problem raising money. As a critical grand jury investigation found, the museum board managed to generate and spend $17 million over 17 years — with no museum to show for it.

The grand jury found that 80 percent of donations went to operating costs instead of the museum's mission. It recommended the firing of CEO Stephen Donches, who was making $180,000 a year; that the board and management be reconstituted with better accountability; and that it deal with conflicts of interest. Failing that, the grand jury said, the state attorney general should dissolve the museum board, allowing for its mission and money to be transferred to a more responsible nonprofit group.

Right now the project is in a legal holding pattern. Board President L. Charles Marcon attempted to move the process forward; Donches was demoted to a position paying half his former salary. Yet nothing much can be done, nor should it, until the Attorney General's Office weighs in on the situation.

Marcon said the attorney leading the investigation has been supportive and was surprised to see the progress the group had made. But the key question is whether it should be allowed to proceed with the same people in charge or requires a housecleaning.

Raising more money doesn't address the $17 million question. It re-emphasizes issues of trust, transparency and accountability the grand jury found lacking.

Other questions are still unanswered:

. What's the actual cost to get the museum up and going? In his grand jury testimony, Donches placed it at $3 million. An estimate provided to the board in February came in at $4.5 million. In April, Marcon said he expects it would be $6 million.

. What's the best use for the $5.5 million trust fund? It was created by Steel executives in 1986 to protect them against future lawsuits. If unused, the money was to go to Lehigh University.

"This request was made for a number of reasons, first and foremost, because Bethlehem Steel Corporation created NMIH for the clear purpose of preserving and conserving the history of the company and its people," Marcon wrote in a letter, asking the parties to the trust fund to transfer it to the museum project.

There are plenty of potential uses for the money — from distributing it to retirees who lost much of their pensions, to social service agencies on South Side, to lasting public improvements. Given the board's record of spending, the community could come up with many more tangible and justifiable proposals.

Other public funding decisions are riding on the outcome of the museum investigation — a $4.5 million request for extension of a state grant, authorization for tax increment financing, a potential partnership with the Bethlehem Parking Authority for a facility, etc. None of these issues can be resolved until the state decides whether the project's leadership can go forward, whether it needs significant changes or needs to be replaced.

The new fundraising is significant, and it counts for something that the board is trying to move forward with management reform in mind. But for every dollar this well-connected group brings in, another dollar may be lost from those who have lost faith — with good reason.

Looking back, having had $17 million to spend and now potentially $8.5 million to $13 million more in the works, this board should be looking at the second or third addition to a museum that opened a decade ago.

Instead, the Bethlehem community has a 17-year gap in leadership that serves as a monument to the downfall of the industry as much as any piece of equipment serves to recall its greatness.

The (Easton) Express-Times.

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SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS AFTER ANOTHER CITY TRAGEDY

Trying to find answers is routine whenever a child dies in a seemingly avoidable accident. Couldn't something have been done to prevent the tragedy?

Of course, the answer won't bring back the young victim. But perhaps it can ensure steps are taken to avoid a repeat of what never should have occurred.

Such is the case with the death of 3-year-old Wynter Larkin, a "sweet" little girl, as one neighbor described her, who was crushed Sunday when a 2,000-pound store security gate fell on her at a Rita's Water Ice.

For Philadelphians, it has become almost a rite in such cases to point a finger at the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, which too frequently seems to have done too little before structures fall and people are hurt or killed.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams says the agency inspects store security gates only after a complaint. Too bad no one complained about this one. A nearby store owner says the Rita's gate was known to be loosely attached.

A wall collapse during a botched demolition that killed six people inside a Salvation Army thrift store last year raised good questions about L&I's inspection policies. Wynter's death raises even more.

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

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