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Why Pa.'s district attorneys are becoming so political

The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

Sept. 10, 2020 | spotlightpa.org
County leaders are worried.

Eight years ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers cut $84 million that counties used to fund programs for people with intellectual disabilities, mental health challenges, and other needs. That money was never restored. 

At the time, the state was facing a $700 million budget shortfall. Now in the wake of the coronavirus, that gap could be as high as $5 billion. That's left county officials and service providers "panicked" that more cuts could be on the way this fall, a new Spotlight PA report found. 

At the moment, lawmakers who put together the budget aren't saying much. That's because Pennsylvania's actual fiscal picture is pretty murky. Congress could still send additional relief to help plug budget holes or, at the very least, lift restrictions on how money already sent to the state can be spent. 

Also this week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that restaurants can return to 50% indoor capacity starting Sept. 21. The timing of the announcement was immediately met with skepticism from Senate Republicans, who were due that day to consider a bill with the same aim.  

Finally, our partners at LNP report that the state won't release information on COVID-19 cases at individual school districts. Officials are justifying the decision by using a law that faithful readers of Spotlight PA should be very familiar with at this point

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

"In many schools when you start asking the question, ‘When did you have your first Black teacher?’ Many have never had one.”

— Aliya Cantanch-Bradley, principal of the Mary McLeod Bethune School in Philadelphia, on the pervasive lack of teachers of color in Pennsylvania

Latest on COVID-19

For the second week, Pennsylvania's COVID-19 numbers are rising, in part, because of cases on college campuses. Our tracker shows the daily case trend in Centre County is rising, most likely because of cases at Penn State's main campus in State College.

» Follow the latests data for the state with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for weekly alerts with the latest data localized for your county

More from Spotlight PA

» Wolf allows restaurants to serve more customers indoors, but timing raises eyebrows

Prosecutors are supposed to be impartial arbiters of justice. Their offices have become politicized. 

How impartial is your district attorney, the one deciding whether or not to prosecute a crime?

That was a matter of discussion earlier this month when Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert made comments online that appeared to defend the police shooting Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“What was the ‘father’s' criminal record?” Ebert wrote. “What was he being arrested for? Why was he unable to comply with police requests?”

Ebert, a Republican, later said he was simply asking questions that any prosecutor would ask during an investigation, but the optics of the comment and ensuing debate prompted Democrats to call for Ebert to resign, and Republicans to come to his aid. 

For criminal justice experts, it was an example of how politics are increasingly intertwined with the work of prosecutors, who have wide discretion in determining how and why they pursue cases. 

Richard Settgast, a law professor at Penn State University, said the politicization of district attorneys has grown with movements for criminal justice and police reform. Those issues largely follow political fault lines, with progressive Democrats pushing for sweeping changes and more police scrutiny, and Republicans generally taking a law-and-order approach. 

“Historically, both Republicans and Democrats have treated police and prosecutors as the good guys,” he said. “Only recently has the office become politicized, now that people are questioning this.”

That kind of politicization has been seen in other parts of the state, including Franklin County, where Republican DA Matt Fogal was censured by the local GOP committee for supporting Black Lives Matter protests.

And in Philadelphia, DA Larry Krasner –– a man who is not shy about expressing his progressive politics –– has become a regular target of a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney.

When a prosecutor comments on or throws their support behind a politicized idea, it can directly affect how much people trust the system, said Daniel Siegel, an attorney and chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s legal ethics committee. 

“The concern that you have is whether that type of post would indicate a predisposition toward prosecuting or not prosecuting other matters that could arise in Cumberland County,” Siegel said of Ebert’s comments.

Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» With an abbreviated deadline looming, census responses in Pennsylvania are down 3% from a decade ago, WITF reports. Participation is down even more in rural counties and, according to the Associated Press, is even bleaker on college campuses. In State College, where Penn State’s main campus is located, “it’s going horribly,” an official said.

» The Pennsylvania Youth Congress calls the use of Native American nicknames and mascots an “epidemic” at public schools in the state, The Inquirer reports. While a new study found that these names and mascots create a hostile environment for students, one school district has spent at least $435,000 defending its racist nickname.

» The state is preparing to release its coronavirus contract tracing app, dubbed COVID Alert Pa., later this month, ABC27 reports. The app allows those who test positive for the virus to upload their confirmed diagnosis, then it sends an alert to those who came in contact with that person. The No. 1 concern among at least one lawmaker: what happens to that data.

More good reads

» CAPITAL-STAR: Pa. Senate office quarantined after staffer tests positive for COVID-19

» CITIZENS’ VOICE: Demand for Northeast Pa. homes driven by fleeing New Yorkers

» INQUIRER: Five questions that will help decide the presidential race in Pa. 

» OBSERVER-REPORTER: Washington Co. will use CARES funds on broadband access

» PENNLIVE: Pittsburgh in ‘surreal in-between’ as it grapples with the coronavirus

» WHYY: Residents of Philly homeless encampments ready to resist evictions

» WASHINGTON POST: The seven political states of Pennsylvania

» YORK DISPATCH: Former GOP chair disavows U.S. rep. over racism comments

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA


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GOING UP? (Case No. 55): A small boy lived on the tenth floor of an apartment building. Whenever he rode the elevator alone, he took it to the sixth floor, then got off and walked the final four floors using the stairs. Why?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: All of the bags were the same weight regardless of the contents.

Congrats to Michele M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!). Others who answered correctly: Jaymes D., Joe., Deborah D., Jim R., Mary S., Drew C., Sandy O., Lynda G., Judy A., Dave D., Marian S., Barbara W., Michael H., Philip C., K. Sauter., Joan C., Karen W., Donald M., Chris K., George S., Lucy B., Rick S., Jeff B., Dennis F., Hagan H., Paul H., Alice O., Joseph S., John J., Gerry W., Bruce G., James K. Dennis P., Lisa M., Lou R., Donald H., Joseph A., Andrew P-T, Jeff W., Christine J., Steven B., Mary W., Kathy W., William D., Edward N., Annette I., Eileen D., Mark C., Norman S.A., Jon N., Thomas S., Judy H., Kenneth J., Daisy B., Deborah B., Carmen B., Dorothy K., Rebecca D., Kathy W., Marvin S., and Melanie B.
» This week's Riddler hint: The answer is a stretch.

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