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Jailbreaks not as common as recent events imply

Plus, PSU reported incorrect financial information to the Pennsylvania Department of Education last winter.

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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.

September 21, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Lobbyist ban, incorrect filings, open primaries, school funding, jailbreak history, docs subpoenaed, police registry, drilling impact, and charity care.


A new bill aims to slow the speed of the revolving door between public service and private sector lobbying, a threshold state lawmakers and workers often cross once they leave Pennsylvania government.

Current state law bars such officials and employees from lobbying their previous workplaces for a year. The new bill, introduced by state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) and backed by members of both major parties, would extend that pause by another year.

It was passed by the upper chamber’s State Government Committee unanimously Tuesday, with no debate. The bill now goes to the full state Senate for consideration.

Also this week, Penn State University reported incorrect financial information to the Pennsylvania Department of Education last winter, errors that remained public for months and highlight longstanding problems with how the school discloses and handles conflicts of interest.

And finally, Pennsylvania’s five most recent former governors have collectively announced their support for open primaries, adding new fuel to a long-smoldering debate over whether the commonwealth should allow unaffiliated voters to help choose partisan candidates.

"By inviting independent voters into party primary elections, it's giving them a chance to 'try before you buy.'"

—Former Govs. Tom Corbett, Ed Rendell, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, and Tom Wolf on why they support open primaries.

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Join Sally & contribute now »
» STORY FEST: Spotlight PA is participating in Philly Story Fest, a first-of-its-kind festival that brings together storytellers from across the city on one stage. Join us Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7-10 p.m. at the Bok building in South Philadelphia (1901 South 9th St.). Tickets are $25 and available here.

» PATH TO EQUITY: Join Spotlight PA for its first in-person summit on Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg. Spotlight PA is co-presenting this event with Color & Culture, a Pennsylvania marketing firm. Tickets are now on sale at this link until sold out.

» ELECTION 101: Join Spotlight PA’s government reporters Kate Huangpu and Stephen Caruso on Thursday, Oct. 12 from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a free panel on Pa.’s 2023 judicial candidates. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» Lawmakers grapple with fixing Pa.’s unconstitutional school funding system
» Four takeaways from our event discussing incarceration and mental health in Pennsylvania
» Democrats again secure one-vote Pa. House majority after special election win
» Pa. will now prompt people to register to vote when they get a driver’s license

Jailbreaks are not as common as recent events imply

Pennsylvania correctional institutions have been the subject of public scrutiny after two high-profile escapes in the past month. But how frequent are these kinds of incidents?

Not very.

Of the thousands of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania jails every month, there have been only 14 “actual escapes” from confinement in the past eight years, according to a Spotlight PA analysis of data the jails self-report to the state Department of Corrections. 

While the county jails mostly hold people who are awaiting a trial or a transfer to another facility, the state-run prisons hold people after they are sentenced. There have been two escapes from these prisons in the past 25 years: one in 2007 and one in 1997, according to the department.

The high-profile escape of Danelo Cavalcante from jail in Chester County would be classified as an “actual escape,” where a person successfully broke out of confinement. Cavalcante escaped while awaiting transfer to a more secure state prison where he would serve his life sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend.

So would the recent breakout of nine teenagers from Abraxas Academy in Philadelphia. Spotlight PA did not analyze data related to escapes from youth detention centers because consistent data were not available.

The jail data show an additional 71 attempted escapes from 2015 through 2022.

But the vast majority of escapes are considered “walk-aways,” where someone leaves the jail for an approved reason, such as work release, and never returns. There were 557 walk-aways between 2015 and 2022, about 87% of all escapes.

Altogether, escapes from adult jails in Pennsylvania are down significantly from pre-pandemic years. The number of escapes dropped from 106 in 2019 to 27 in 2020. It increased to 43 last year.

Though escapes from secure settings like prisons and jails are serious, escapes themselves are rarely violent when in progress, nor are the fugitives likely to commit violence when in the community, said Jeff Mellow, a professor at the City University of New York who studies flights from correctional institutions.

“Even though everybody assumed that there would be violence during during [Cavalcante’s] time in the community and recapture, he did not engage in any violence during that time,” Mellow said, “which once again, supports our research that less than 10% of escapes are violent at the time of escape, and then it even goes further down from there post-escape and at the time of recapture.”

Escapes happen far less frequently now than in the past, Mellow added, because most facilities use cameras, facial recognition technology, and infrared sensors to stop people from leaving. Successful breakouts usually stem from human error, he said, and the people who manage them are almost always caught.

“We found that approximately 92% to 95% were recaptured,” Mellow said. “I think we can honestly say that’s even higher for ones that escape from medium or maximum security facilities.”

In the small number of cases where people are not found, authorities may have felt the person posed a lower risk and decided not to raise a widespread alert, Mellow said.

“They walked away and they just had a few more weeks on their sentence or something like that,” he said. “They're still an escapee, but it doesn't have that national attention.” Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

🏆 SMART STUFF: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: State House control, dropped dress code, and farm animals on the loose.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaSCHOOL SUIT: Several school districts and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association are suing the state over a new, lawsuit-inspired rule that allows students receiving special education services to remain enrolled until they turn 22, one year longer than before, per WESA. The PSBA and the districts — Pittsburgh Public Schools, Central Bucks, Upper Darby — say the rule was improperly imposed.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaDOCS SUBPOENAED: Federal agents probing March's fatal explosion at a West Reading chocolate plant say Pennsylvania officials are refusing to provide unredacted inspection and investigation reports for the natural gas utility at the center of the inquiry. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a subpoena to Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission for the documents earlier this week. 

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaPOLICE REGISTRY: The Lehigh County DA’s Office wants private citizens to give police access to their home surveillance cameras to aid and speed up criminal investigations, Lehigh Valley Live reports. Such "registries" are being launched by law enforcement entities across North America, prompting warnings from a privacy and civil rights watchdog in British Columbia that called it a "dystopian" overreach.

DRILLING IMPACT: Amid mounting evidence that ties living near a fracking site to health issues, PublicSource provides an in-depth look at the struggles of residents in Washington County — the most heavily fracked in the state. Legislative efforts aimed at limiting how close drilling can be to homes have stalled in Harrisburg, leaving individuals and small towns to grapple with the issue alone.
CHARITY CARE: CHOP paid CEO Madeline Bell a record $7.7 million in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. The number is notable for another reason: It's more than the nonprofit hospital spent on charity care in three years, all as scrutiny grows around the free and discounted services to needy patients that afford nonprofit hospitals big tax breaks.


» AP: Pa. state government will prepare to start using AI in its operations

» CAP-STAR: Planned Parenthood PAC ads target Pa. Supreme Court race

» INQUIRER: Penn Medicine hired 'con man' for top hospital job

» NYTIMES: David McCormick will enter Pennsylvania Senate race 

» PENNLIVE: Bill allows medical pot growers to sell directly to patients
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

WHAT IS IT? (Case No. 218)The beginning of problems, or words, or maybe a square, or under a tree, or even in hair. What am I?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: David. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to April W., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Norman S., Beth T., Joe S., Lou R., Annette I., Dana D., and Peter S.
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