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How a flawed Pa. law traps people in jail

Plus, meet the Krasner impeachment managers.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
November 22, 2022
Gray area, gun supply, leader board, asylum cases, college crisis, and Beyond Meat's very bad week. It's Tuesday. Thanks for checking in.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has cleared the way for judges to dismiss charges against defendants who would never be deemed competent to participate in their own trial, a longstanding point of confusion.

The September ruling clarifies a decades-old state law that gave ambiguous instructions on what to do when someone is not competent to stand trial and for varying reasons never will be — a gray area that left people who have severe, incurable mental conditions effectively trapped behind bars.

But significant roadblocks remain for people who are already in state prison, mentally deteriorating behind bars, and facing new charges.

Read the full collaborative report from Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism: Judges in Pa. can now dismiss charges against people ‘incompetent’ to stand trial, but flaws remain.

THE CONTEXT: The high court's opinion — delivered in Commonwealth v. Jquan Humphrey — gives trial courts the authority to cut a case short if it’s clear the defendant will never be able to participate in their own defense, said Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“It was plainly unfair for the district attorney, the one bringing the charges, to exclusively have that authority,” Bridge added.

State law requires courts to determine whether with treatment, those people can regain their competency and resume their case. 

But the treatment supply is dwarfed by demand, and the only state hospitals that offer competency restoration — Torrance and Norristown — don't have a process for admitting people already in state prison. That's a problem for those, like Humphrey, who face new charges in state custody.

Brandon Cwalina, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services, which runs Torrance and Norristown, said related rule changes would "require legislative action or regulatory amendments."

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"Over the long run, having Philadelphia vote at a disproportionately low level will make it harder for Democrats to win elections. It won’t make it impossible … but it just makes it harder. So it is a real problem [for the party].”

—Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban on why Philadelphia's falling voter turnout numbers are a warning sign for Pennsylvania Democrats

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A procession of geese at St. Agnes Cemetery in West Chester, via Kathy B. Send us your photos and artwork by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.'HOME-GROWN': Of the 65 killings recorded in Pittsburgh between the start of the year and last Thursday, all but five involved guns. TribLIVE reports that despite policing and intervention by streetwise outreach workers, there is no letup in the supply of firearms. Almost two-thirds of the crime guns recovered in Pittsburgh originated with in-state dealers, leading some to dub this a “home-grown” problem. 

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.LEADER ROLES: House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) will not seek a leadership position in the next legislative session, The Morning Call (paywall) reports. The announcement came after Democrats secured their first state House majority since 2010. House Republicans plan to pick their leadership team in a closed-door election today. Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso explains.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.THE MANAGERS: Three state representatives have been named impeachment managers for the looming state Senate trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. The Inquirer (paywall) reports former prosecutors Craig Williams (R., Delaware) and Tim Bonner (R., Mercer) were tapped to mount the impeachment case, while Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia) "will be providing the defense."

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.ABBOTT BUSES: Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has sent a second bus of asylum seekers to Philadelphia, the latest in his criticized effort to pressure Democrats on the issue of immigration. WPVI reports the second bus arrived on Monday. The city said Texas officials have not coordinated with them "despite a direct request from Philadelphia's Office of Emergency Management to do so."

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.COLLEGE CANARY: Vox, in a story about "the shrinking future of college," calls Pennsylvania "a kind of canary in the demographic coal mine." While the Great Recession 14 years ago led to cuts in public funding for higher education in states like this one, it also coincided with a sharp drop in birth rates that could soon hit schools like Shippensburg University, where enrollment is already a struggle.
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CLUB Q: Berks County native Derrick Rump was among the people killed in Saturday's mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, which is being treated as a hate crime. Friends told WaPo (paywall) that Rump, a bartender, was a beloved fixture at the LGBTQ nightclub.

BEYOND BAD: Leaked images reported by Bloomberg appear to show mold growing inside Beyond Meat's Pennsylvania factory. Gizmodo says the report follows several recent exposes on the company's finances.

TRAVEL DAYS: AAA expects this Thanksgiving weekend to be one of the busiest for travel in years, nearing pre-pandemic levels. Some 3.5 million motorists are expected on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, per Patch.

PARENT PSA: Pennsylvania's newest PSA campaign is aimed at parents who leave their children unattended while they gamble at casinos.

CLOSING TIME: A tenacious Pittsburgh cobbler is calling it a career after almost 75 years, per City Paper. Gabriel Fontana is ready to retire.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Concentration

Congrats to our daily winners: Beth T., Becky C., Barbara F., Vicki U., Theresa T., Craig W., Al M., Patricia M., Brian B., Kimberly B., Connie K., Jon W., Ted W., Wendy A., Chuck M., Deb N., Francine C., Don H., Elaine C., Susan N.-Z., Leda W., Jane R., Dianne K., George S., Judy M., John H., David W., Susan D., Moon M., Starr B., Arthur Z., Bill S., John P., Kimberly D., Stanley J., and James B.
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