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Experts say $7.5M for public defense isn't enough

Plus, advocates fear new guardianship law won't solve issues.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

January 11, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
Public defense, impasse pay, legal bills, Level Up, guardianship law, Philly shakeup, insurance checks, official oversight, and debt deliverance. 

Pennsylvania will soon convene a committee to decide how to spend the state's first-ever funding for public defense, though experts cautioned the investment won't be enough to level the playing field.

Spotlight PA's Danielle Ohl reports that the legislature in December approved a $7.5 million investment for criminal defense for those who cannot afford a lawyer.

Also this week, 12 state House lawmakers didn’t cash at least one of their paychecks during Pennsylvania’s six-month budget impasse last year. A new bill would force all to abstain, Stephen Caruso reports.

Finally, DuBois has spent at least $274,00 in taxpayer money to cover the legal bills of former City Manager Herm Suplizio, who is accused of stealing roughly double that amount.

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"Level Up was a tiny, stop-gap solution, and it was a really important one."

—Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, on the axed supplemental funding for the poorest Pennsylvania schools.


» School funding, permitting at top of Pa. legislature’s 2024 agenda

» Pa.’s poorest school districts were slated for a funding boost. State aid went to school construction instead.

Experts fear new guardianship law won’t solve systemic issues

With little fanfare, Gov. Josh Shapiro in December signed into law a bill aimed at fixing long-standing problems within Pennsylvania’s vexing system for safeguarding adults — many of them seniors — who courts deem incapable of making critical life, health, and financial decisions for themselves.

The bill, now Act 61 of 2023, makes changes to the process of assigning guardians to people who are considered incapacitated, whether due to age-related illnesses, mental health issues, or cognitive disabilities. Those guardians can be family members but are often professionals in the private sector who do such work for a living.

Families who have experienced the system have long complained it is rife with pitfalls: trapping people in guardianship for years, if not a lifetime, with little chance of escape. Spotlight PA last spring highlighted the story of one woman who alleges in a long-running civil case now before a top Pennsylvania court that her late mother’s guardianship (including her legal representation) was rife with conflicts of interest.

And some advocates believe that even the new law won’t solve the many problems associated with guardianship.

The new law, championed by state Sens. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) and Art Haywood (D., Montgomery) and signed by Shapiro in mid-December, is at its core an effort to make guardianship a choice of last resort. It requires judges and others involved in the process to first consider less restrictive alternatives, even when individuals are found to be incapacitated or unable to make many decisions for themselves. 

In short, the law states, “the court may not use a determination of incapacity alone to justify a guardianship.” If a judge does decide on guardianship of a person, anyone can file a petition with the court to end or modify the oversight. And if there is evidence that a person’s incapacitation is temporary, or that circumstances may change, the court has to schedule a review hearing within a year.

The law also mandates legal representation for all people facing a court hearing to determine whether they are competent. And it would require professional guardians to pass a certification exam administered by a national guardianship certification organization.

As it stands now in Pennsylvania, those guardians aren’t required to be certified or trained before taking on the role.

The new law has received positive reviews from elected officials (the vote to approve it in both chambers was unanimous), the state chapter of the AARP, and others.

But some advocates for families who have struggled with guardianship believe the new law won’t make a dent in improving flaws in the current process. 

Rick Black runs a Charlotte, North Carolina-based nonprofit, the Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR), that advocates for older and dependent adults.

In an interview, Black said the “No. 1 issue” is securing effective legal representation — not lawyers, he said, who are “financially incentivized” to create guardianships, and then profit off them. Oftentimes, there is a set stable of lawyers who practice in orphans’ courts (where guardianship cases in Pennsylvania are heard) and who benefit financially when guardianships are granted.

The new law, he said, does not address that perceived conflict. Nor does it create rigorous certification standards for professional guardians, which he believes are currently lax. (The Center for Guardianship Certification states on its website that it tests applicants on financial and medical management and knowledge of the courts and the law, among other areas of competency.)

“The problem we have today is that the burden of proof to create a guardianship is too low, the oversight is too low and it allows the predatory legal community to make millions off the backs of vulnerable people,” Black said.

Pennsylvania has over 18,000 active guardianships, nearly half of which involve people over the age of 60, according to data compiled by the state Supreme Court’s Advisory Council on Elder Justice in the Courts. Those guardians oversee more than $1.7 billion in assets. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: William Penn removal, Shapiro's futuristic tech alliance, and moon mission marred
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaSHAKEUP 2024: A leadership shakeup on Philadelphia's election-overseeing board of commissioners made waves Wednesday ahead of a 2024 presidential race that's likely to bring fresh scrutiny to the city's election operations. The move followed internal tensions.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaEXHIBIT G: A Pennsylvania rape case is at the center of a new challenge to police uses of Google search data in solving criminal cases, Bloomberg News reports, via TribLIVE. Police found their suspect by obtaining Google data on users who made a specific query.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaINSURANCE CHECKS: Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro says Pennsylvanians can now request an official review by health care professionals of any wrongfully denied insurance claim under a law put in place by his predecessor. Requests can be made here.

OFFICIAL OVERSIGHT: Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato attended her first jail oversight board meeting last week, breaking from her predecessor who sent a surrogate on his behalf for years. WESA reports on the board's new members and old problems.

DEBT DELIVERANCE: A plan from state Rep. Arvind Venkat (D., Allegheny) to use state funds to purchase and forgive huge sums of medical debt saddling Pennsylvanians didn't make it into this year's final budget, but the story isn't over yet, PennLive (paywall) reports.


» APPark Service retracts decision to take down Penn statue

» PENNLIVEShapiro touts agriculture during Farm Show visit

» POLITICO: Biden inches ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania, poll says

» WESA: Despite low unemployment, SNAP enrollment tops 2 million

» WITF: Pennsylvania to begin using artificial intelligence in operations

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

DOES NOT BELONG (Case No. 238): Which word does not belong in the following list: noon, wow, level, radar, madam, kayak, bathtub, rotator?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The bear is white. (Find last week's clue here.) 

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