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Jails not equipped for growing mental health crisis

Plus, unusual fee raises questions in Washington County.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

October 20, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Mental health, patchwork system, issue guides, doubling down, unusual fee, tax questions, state sale, water wait, in conflict, and legal label. 

County jails across Pennsylvania lack the resources to address a growing mental health crisis, putting some of the most vulnerable incarcerated people at heightened risk, Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism report.

Survey responses from more than 20 Pennsylvania jails serving the majority of the state population described similar situations: a growing number of incarcerated people with serious mental health needs, a lack of medical staff, and a complex system for accessing the few resources available from the state.

“We simply are not trained…nor have a facility to hold those requiring mental health treatment,” said Angela Kern, deputy warden of treatment for Fayette County Prison, in response to the survey. 

Also this week, Ashad Hajela of the State College bureau reports that a lack of standardization and adequate funding has left Pennsylvania with a patchwork coroner system marked by huge workloads, inconsistent training, and, in at least one case, rusty medical equipment. 

Finally, Spotlight PA's voter-focused election coverage continues with guides to where the major candidates for governor stand on health and rural issues. 


"Counties need clarity on how to administer the election, and it’s critical that every voter’s vote is counted in this election."

—Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman doubling down on guidance from her department that undated mail ballots should be counted Nov. 8

Read our complete coverage, plus key dates, campaign finance data, sample ballots & more at our Election Center 2022 website.

Spotlight on the Issues: Where Mastriano and Shapiro stand on:
»  Energy & Environment
»  College Funding & Student Debt
»  Crime & Justice
»  LGTBQ Rights
»  Abortion, Medicaid, & Opioids
»  Rural Health Care & Broadband

More issue analyses will be published in the coming weeks.

A complete listing of Spotlight PA voter guides:
»  Your complete guide to voting in the Nov. 8 election
»  Everything you need to know about mail ballots
»  Your complete guide to the candidates for governor
»  How to vet the candidates on your midterm ballot
»  No constitutional amendments on the ballot, but big ones loom
»  How to serve as a poll worker on Nov. 8
»  These Pa. voters haven't missed a Nov. election for 50+ years
»  How Spotlight PA will cover Pennsylvania's 2022 election

En Español: 
»  Una guía básica para investigar a los candidatos
»  Cómo trabajar como trabajador electoral el 8 de noviembre
»  Todo lo que necesita saber para votar por correo
»  Su guía completa de los candidatos a gobernador

Support Spotlight PA's vital election coverage by making a gift now.
» AP: Fetterman’s doctor says he’s recovering well from May stroke
» INQUIRER: How Mastriano 'wielded the power of Facebook' (paywall)
» LVN: Judge lets Lehigh Co. use election drop boxes as planned
» PENNLIVE: GOP looks to woo Pa.'s growing Latino electorate (paywall)
» WESA: Where are Oz, Fetterman campaign dollars coming from?
» Wolf administration insists undated mail ballots will be valid this November as counties proceed with caution
» Penn State wavers on funding for Center for Racial Justice, a key commitment following 2020 protests
» Why doesn’t James Franklin show up on Penn State’s list of highest-paid employees?

Washington County charges public unusual fee to access court docs

A Western Pennsylvania county is imposing a $10.50 “search fee” on public requests for court documents, a levy that open records advocates say adds an unusual and undue financial barrier to constitutionally required access.

Between May 2021 and May 2022, Washington County collected $1,026.50 from the fees, according to a Right-to-Know response obtained by Spotlight PA. 

The people who paid included local journalists and criminal defendants. 

Open records experts told Spotlight PA they’re unaware of another Pennsylvania county with such a fee. Eric Feder, president of the Pennsylvania State Association of the Prothonotaries and Clerks of Courts, said the same but noted the association doesn’t formally track such information. 

Washington County officials offered unclear justifications for the charges in interviews.

Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis said the search fee, which is collected by her office, was established prior to her taking on the role in 2020. Davis, who has warred openly with the county’s commissioners over Alternative Sentencing Program fees and fines, and who was sentenced to 15 days in jail by a county judge for refusing to transfer juvenile case files from her office, said she could not justify the fee.

Davis said she is also unable to remove or change it, a claim disputed by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), which oversees Pennsylvania's county courts.

Melissa Melewsky of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a trade group representing media outlets statewide, including Spotlight PA, called the fee “problematic” and “inconsistent with the requirements” found in the public access policy governing Pennsylvania’s county courts.

Section 6 of the policy, which was put in place by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, explicitly outlines the fees clerks of court can charge for copies of court documents — up to 25 cents a page — but says nothing about a search fee covering the administrative task of retrieving such records. (Washington County charges both.) 

“There is commentary under Section 6 that suggests ‘reasonable fees’ can be imposed, but what that actually means, who determines reasonableness, and how a challenge could be brought are not addressed in the policy,” Melewsky added.

Washington County Court Administrator Patrick Grimm said search fees collected by Davis are deposited monthly into the county’s general fund, a key source of revenue for her office, and “are not segregated … nor earmarked for anything other than use by the county for general operations.” He declined to answer additional questions via AOPC spokespeople in Harrisburg.

Melewsky believes Washington County’s search fee is excessive, as the administrative costs associated with fulfilling records requests are already supported by taxes and copy fees that more than pay for the raw materials involved.

But the options members of the public have to challenge an access fee like Washington County’s are directly proportional to their means, Melewsky explained, a key reason so many go unaired and unaddressed.

“People can push back, but the state’s public access policy doesn’t spell out an appeal process,” she said. “You’d have to go to court. More than likely you’d have to get an attorney and pursue litigation. And that’s a time-consuming and costly process.” Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

TAX QUESTIONS: City & State asks if Pennsylvania can erase property taxes without wiping out education. The question has long loomed over Harrisburg and halted efforts to adjust the levies, a primary source of school funding. And while a one-time boost in property tax rebates rolled out this year, long-term action could, like so many other things, depend on the outcome of this year's governor's race.

STATE SALE: Outgoing state Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) is moving a bill that would sell the massive Allentown State Hospital property — a generational redevelopment opportunity — to a development group headed by his childhood friend and political donor J.B. Reilly. The Morning Call (paywall) reports the $5.5 million proposed sale has the support of other lawmakers but also lots of critics.

WATER WAIT: Months after a frack out at a gas well in Greene County, residents in one community are still dependent on bottled water, some having to drive across the West Virginia border to find enough of it for their families, per PublicSource. The gas driller, EQT, and the state are still investigating, while testing by a Duquesne University professor found signs of significant water well contamination.

IN CONFLICT: A process that caught dozens of accidental double votes in Philadelphia in 2020 may be limited or stopped altogether this time. The reason? A GOP-imposed condition on millions of dollars in state "election integrity grants." To get the money, counties must count mail ballots without stopping. Philadelphia's double-vote safeguard process could violate the rule, The Inquirer (paywall) reports.

LEGAL LABEL: Months after Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of Spotlight PA's push to uncover more information about Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, the court has changed the status of its opinion from "unreported" to "reported." It's a significant development that means the decision "can now be cited as binding precedent in other cases," reporter Ed Mahon explains.

» DELCO TIMES: Wolf exonerates innocent teen put to death in 1931

» EHN: See where toxic PFAS have been used in fracking wells

» LNP: Ex-police chief charged with indecent assault

» STATEIMPACT: Sen. urged health dept. to drop out of fracking forum

» WESA: Post-Gazette journalists begin strike

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TOMORROWLAND (Case No. 169)Where does today come before yesterday?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Stone, Money, Alone, Atone, Phone, Honey, Clone, and lots more (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Brian B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Nathan B., Annette I., Jon N., Frederick H., Rebecca D., Beth T., Donna D., Karen K., Philip C., Mary B., Fred O., Lois P., Michelle T., George S., John H., Kathy M., Anthony E., Tish M., William G., Seth Z., Michael S., George S., Robert K., Lynda G., Jeffrey F., and Jay G.
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