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Norfolk Southern CEO to testify before legislature

Plus, local fixes to prevent mentally ill from being trapped in jail.

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The logo of PA Post, a free daily newsletter delivering the top news from across Pennsylvania every day.

A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
Monday, March 20, 2023
Dangerous holds, crash testimony, public portal, DA on trial, 'quid pro quo,' maternal mortality, bird flu in seals, and Reading started the fire.

Pennsylvania's broken competency system is trapping people with mental illness in jail — often making matters worse — and this has police, public defenders, and the jails themselves seeking workarounds. 

In Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, law enforcement officials have traded "mercy bookings" for on-call civilian responders in an effort to avoid arresting people in crisis for low-level offenses in the first place.

One and a half hours to the east, the Defender Association of Philadelphia works with law enforcement to drop charges when possible, eliminating the need for lengthy and potentially dangerous competency holds — an option that isn't feasible everywhere given the resources involved.

And jails — the ill-equipped and often defacto destination for Pennsylvanians experiencing mental health crises — are looking to offset extended wait times for dwindling state hospital beds with proposed in-jail clinics or therapeutic services, or even mobile competency programs that come to them.

Read the full report: How some police, attorneys, and jails are trying to help Pa.'s ailing system for mentally ill people.

THE CONTEXT: Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported on the case of Rachel Bridgeman, who spent 49 days in Allegheny County Jail waiting for a state hospital bed. During that time she refused food, medicine, clothing, and was put on suicide watch.

The outlets also found that such competency proceedings in Pennsylvania typically involve minor crimes that can result from someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness in public.

A survey, meanwhile, found 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.

Last year, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court cleared the way for judges to dismiss charges against people who would never be deemed competent to stand trial, a longstanding point of confusion in state law. Prior to that, district attorneys had the final say, adding to indefinite prison holds.


"Culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio."

—Expected 2024 GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis naming two must-win states as his political rosebud; DeSantis' dad is from Beaver County, Pennsylvania and his mother is from Youngstown, Ohio
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UNEQUAL ELECTIONS: Join us and a panel of election experts on Thursday, March 30 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free discussion on unequal voting policies in the state, how they impact voters, and possible solutions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

Fresh flowers and donuts from the now-closed 2023 Philadelphia Flower Show, via @lora_explores. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A large donut sculpture made of flowers.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.CRASH CASE: Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is set to testify before a Pennsylvania Senate panel this morning about last month's train crash in Ohio. Elsewhere: Shareholders are suing over the railroad's "culture of risk-taking"; NBC News reports Norfolk Southern's derailments are higher than most of its peers; and the AP says pro-Russian social media accounts are fueling related disinformation.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.OFFICIAL COMPLAINTS: The Pennsylvania House Ethics Committee plans to launch an online portal for complaints of harassment or discrimination against state representatives under rules expanding who can bring them. But Colleen Kennedy, who alleged abuse by ex-Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel, writes in an op-ed for The Inquirer (paywall) that the solution "will not come from politicians policing themselves."

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.MIXED VERDICT: Suspended Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas was found not guilty of sexual assault and aggravated indecent assault, the most serious charges against him, at the conclusion of his jury trial last week, WTAE reports. Thomas, accused of assaulting a woman inside her Windber home in 2021, was found guilty on six related counts. His sentencing is tentatively set for May 16.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.NO DEAL: Democratic Allegheny County executive candidate John Weinstein is denying a quid pro quo effort for an influential area board seat. A former campaign manager for state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D., Allegheny) says Kinkead was offered a "deal," which she rejected, to resign her Alcosan board seat to create an opening for Weinstein. In exchange, he'd stop supporting her 2022 primary opponent.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.ROOT CAUSES: The U.S. had one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in its history in 2021, according to a new CDC report. In Pennsylvania, Capital-Star reports Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget proposal calls for the commonwealth to put "real resources" "for the first time" into studying the root causes of Pennsylvania's high maternal mortality rate, which is three times higher for Black women.
🏆  TEST YOURSELF: If you’re confident you followed the news closely last week, there’s only one way to prove it: Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz.

BRIERE SUSPENDED: Mercyhurst hockey player Carson Briere has been suspended from the team and banned from an Erie bar over a viral video of him pushing an unoccupied wheelchair down a flight of stairs. The owner of the wheelchair, Sydney Benes, lost her legs in a car crash.

PROJECT STOP: SEPTA is halting its contested King of Prussia rail line project after federal funding for the four-mile, $3 billion extension fell through. SEPTA says earmarked money will be used for existing operations.

FAMILY VALUES: The Northern Lebanon School District board said no to "The Addams Family" musical for 2024, arguing that one of the nation's most popular high school musicals promotes bad values, via WITF.

FLU MYSTERY: Bird flu has ravaged poultry flocks across Pennsylvania, and now it's reached New England seals. The New York Times (paywall) reports the news is raising questions about how the virus spreads.

FIRE MOUNTAIN: Fireworks for Reading's 275th birthday were cut short last week after causing five brush fires near the city's iconic Pagoda. The Eagle reports officials called things off about two minutes into the show.

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.

Friday's answer: Clandestine

Congrats to our weekly winner: Lisa H.

Congrats to our daily winners: Susan D., Becky C., Craig W., Kimberly D., Elaine C., Bill M., Barbara F., Vicki U., Dan A., Starr B., Eric F., Don H., Susan N.-Z., Jon W., Beth T., Eva K., Vanessa J., Kevin M., Ada M., Jane R., Daniel M., Jody A., Jade C., Marty M., Kim C., David W., Dennis M., Stewart N., William Z., James and Anne B., Beth R., Bill S., Suzanne S., Wendy A., Tom M., Eddy Z., Richard A., Nancy S., Ronnee G., Karen W., Amy Z., Stanley J., and Ted B.
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