There is an adage that prosecutors are the ministers of justice.
“It’s true,” Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said.
Prosecutors are vested with an immense amount of authority and a great deal of unfettered discretion. From who to charge, what to charge, which cases will be diverted, which deals to offer and which cases to push to trial, prosecutors have the ability to shape case outcomes in ways most other criminal justice actors do not.
For John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, this abundance of highly influential discretion makes prosecutors the most powerful players in criminal justice systems.
“It’s sort of remarkable to me how little attention their discretion gets,” Pfaff said. “No other person has more opportunities to use their discretion.
“Police can decide do I arrest this guy or not,” he said. “But, a prosecutor can decide do I charge him or do I dismiss the charge? Do I accept diversion or do I not? Do I charge him with the misdemeanor or the felony? Do I charge the felony with the mandatory minimum or the one without? ... It’s a huge amount of direct control.”
Pfaff said prosecutors also have the power to implement criminal justice reforms that many are lobbying state and federal legislatures to enact.
“You want to get rid of cash bail? Great, prosecutors can stop asking for cash bail,” he said. “You think we shouldn’t use mandatory minimums? Great, prosecutors can simply not charge them. You think we should legalize marijuana? Prosecutors can do what (other prosecutors) have done and say ‘OK, I’m just not going to prosecute low-level marijuana cases anymore. You can arrest them but we’re just going to drop them.’”
In his book “Locked In: The True Cause of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform,” Pfaff explores the role prosecutors have played in driving up incarceration rates in America.
From roughly 1970 to the early 1990s, incarceration rates in the United States nearly tripled, growing from roughly 200,000 people locked up to more than 700,000 in the early 1990s, according to the Sentencing Project.
At the same time, crime rates also rose.
However, beginning in the early to mid-1990s crime rates in the United States began to fall and have largely continued to fall for more than 20 years.
Incarcerations rates, however, have continued to climb. In 2015 more than 1.4 million were in state and federal prison—twice as many people as in the mid-1990s when crime rates peaked.
Pfaff’s book explores what drove the out-of-sync growth in prisoners between 1994 and 2008.
“We have fewer and fewer people entering the criminal justice system, but at the same time we admit more people to prison,” Pfaff said. “We were doing more with less.”
Pfaff concludes that one of the main drivers of mass incarceration has been an increase in felony filings.
During this time period, Pfaff said, arrests were down, the likelihood of going to prison if charged with a felony remained the same and the time served in prison for most criminal convictions remained roughly the same.
However, the number of felony filings rose by roughly 40 percent.
If more people are being charged with felonies, even if the likelihood of going to prison remains the same, the sheer number of people going to prison will increase.
“Really what drives this process in an increased willingness of prosecutors to charge people with felonies,” Pfaff said.
Pfaff said as crime rates rose, the number of assistant district attorneys rose to deal with the increased work load. As crime rates fell, however, staffing levels did not decrease.
“This doesn’t seem to mean that the individual ADA sitting at his desk is anymore punitive today than in 1990 or perhaps in 1974,” he said. “We just have a lot of them. We have 10,000 more (assistant district attorneys) and less crime.”
Pfaff points to a few policy points to help achieve reform in mass incarceration.
The first is changing the way prosecutors are elected.
Most prosecutors are elected to represent an entire county, which include a large urban hub surrounded by many suburban or rural municipalities.
Much of the crime these prosecutors see comes from inside the large urban area, but most of the people who vote in local elections come from the rural and suburban areas.
Pfaff said this can put the electorate out of step with the citizenry who are facing the consequences of the criminal justice system.
He said one fix could be to have an elected prosecutor for the urban area and one for the rural and suburban areas.
“I think it’s more important to give local communities a voice,” Pfaff said. “I think if the elections were more local, it’s not a panacea, but I think that would at least solve some of our problems our electoral system has.”
Pfaff also said charging guidelines, which could limit some of the discretion prosecutors have in deciding what to charge defendants, could be helpful.
This would be similar to current sentencing guidelines that give judges a suggested type and range of sentence depending on charge and certain pertinent factors.
Finally, Pfaff said one way to possibly reign in more severe charges is to require counties to pay, or pay a larger share, of the cost to incarcerate people in state prisons.
In Pennsylvania, most people sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison or more are sentenced to a state prison. A maximum sentence of less than two years is usually served at a county jail or prison, and the county pays to incarcerate the person.
Pfaff said requiring counties to pay the cost of longer sentences could drive prosecutors to be more selective and less punitive.
Most people who recall breaking an arm would remember the pain or maybe the weight of a cast or the itchy skin underneath.
Smaran “Sam” Teru isn’t like most people.
“I really like bones, ever since seventh grade when I broke my arm playing football,” he said. “I know it’s kind of weird to say that.”
Questions on how bones grow back and why they grow back the way they do have inspired Teru to pursue a career in orthopedic medicine that will combine his love for science and exploration with his dedication to community service.
“Patient interaction and giving back to the community are two things that are key to the medical field,” Teru said.
He would like to attend Clarion University for its accelerated program for medicine, but he’s already had a headstart on his medical career thanks to both academic pursuits and his volunteer service.
Participating in the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s PULSE program has given Teru a taste of what to expect when he heads off to college and then medical school. In the fall of his junior year, he attended lectures at Penn State’s medical college during a semesterlong program that focused on the musculoskeletal system.
Teru has been practicing his future bedside manner by volunteering.
“If I can give my time to somebody, I think that’s the biggest investment you can give,” he said.
While volunteering at Hershey Medical Center, he worked in the sterilization department where he received what he called a good introduction to the equipment surgeons would use.
He’s also volunteered at Geisinger Holy Spirit, first as a general volunteer checking with patients to see if they want magazines, newspapers or other such things and then as a volunteer in the surgery department where he would make beds, clean rooms and sometimes transfer patients to their vehicles.
Teru has also volunteered at Messiah Village where he helped take residents to the chapel service and fill water pitchers in their rooms.
“Because these are elderly people, just seeing and talking to someone who is significantly younger than them gives them joy,” he said. “I’m getting joy out of it too.”
The highlight of his volunteer work, and his high school career, has been cheering on the same student for three years in the Special Olympics and being able to see the student grow as a person and be able to relate to him better each year.
“We’re basically their cheerleader for the day. We cheer them on as they’re doing their events,” Teru said. “The day is really geared towards them and making sure that they enjoy the day.”
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives had passed an aggressive, bipartisan gambling expansion bill an hour earlier when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s top budget adviser walked by the chamber’s Democratic leader in the Capitol’s ornate Rotunda.
“Thank you,” he told Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
It was perhaps the most polite thing said about Pennsylvania’s ugly budget process and a Frankenstein-like assortment now sitting on Wolf’s desk: The gambling bill, a $140 million tax package and $1.5 billion borrowing measure to bail out the state’s finances.
There were no celebratory press conferences for the borrowing and gambling, no flood of credit-taking and no visible elation.
Despite their distaste for it, lawmakers say it puts the state on sound financial footing for the foreseeable future after fighting persistent deficits since the recession. This year’s projected deficit was particularly acute: $2.2 billion, driven largely by Pennsylvania’s biggest post-recession shortfall.
It props up a $32 billion bipartisan spending package, and could ease whatever fiscal challenges emerge ahead of next year’s election when voters decide on Wolf’s re-election bid, plus contests for most legislative seats.
Wolf hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the bills, hundreds of pages of legislation that flew through the Legislature this past week after months of stalemate pitting Wolf, Senate Republican leaders and Democratic lawmakers against the House Republican majority’s huge conservative bloc.
Everyone had reasons to dislike the package.
“When you’re dealing with difficult budgetary decisions, you’re never going to be left with the good versus the bad,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.
Still, top House Republicans declared a victory of sorts, saying they had fought off higher taxes, in particular a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production that had isolated them in the Capitol.
There was no celebration by Wolf, top Senate Republicans or Democratic lawmakers, who had, to some degree, unified around a bigger tax package, including a Marcellus Shale tax.
But blocked by House Republicans, the scale of the borrowing and gambling legislation grew. In the end, finishing the stalemate was its own victory.
“Being done had a lot of value, and so we moved forward with it,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, told reporters.
Asked how the governor felt about the budget process, his office released a statement that took a swing at House Republicans, saying their opposition to a severance tax “has revealed the worst of Harrisburg.” House Speaker Mike Turzai — the Allegheny County Republican who is considering a bid for governor — insisted it would damage western Pennsylvania’s economy.
The process blew four months past the July 1 start of the fiscal year.
The state had spending authority under a spending bill lawmakers overwhelmingly approved June 30.
By and large, lawmakers gave Wolf the spending he had sought: a modest increase for public schools, a robust boost for pre-school programs, more resources to fight opioid addiction and a big injection of money into services for the intellectually disabled. Helping was the easing of long-term cost pressures in prisons and Medicaid.
Paying for it was another matter.
In mid-July, House Republicans abruptly retreated from discussions over raising taxes and embarked on two-month, twisting-and-turning path to produce their own no-new-taxes plan.
Along the way, Wolf and the Senate fought off House GOP efforts to siphon cash from mass transit agencies and environmental cleanup programs and impose spending cuts on prisons and county-run social services. The state struggled to make payments on time and got slapped with a costly credit downgrade.
Ultimately, Wolf won approval of just a fraction of the $1 billion tax package he had initially proposed.
The tax package now on Wolf’s desk could produce just enough cash to finance the cost of the borrowing — more than $2 billion, including interest, over 20 years — and lawmakers estimate the gambling bill will provide another $200 million a year from casino license fees and taxes on higher gambling losses.
Wolf was never enthusiastic about borrowing or expanding casino-style gambling. But Republicans preferred it over tax increase and, to boot, the gambling bill was packed with pet provisions to bring cash to legislators’ districts.
That left Wolf little choice — and it’s why Wolf’s budget secretary thanked Dermody.
“He understands he’s got some more money,” Dermody said. “The budget secretary likes to have money.”
Local and state dignitaries will gather at 10 a.m. Tuesday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that will officially open the new Rowe Road in Shippensburg.
“This project is a reflection of community and governmental cooperation and collaboration,” said Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp. “This will improve safety and open future development opportunities ... and it’s a testament that with good leadership, all things are possible.”
Rowe Road joins Route 11 just south of the Weis Plaza entrance and runs past Volvo Construction Equipment. It was previously located north of Weis Plaza and ran around the middle and high schools to Volvo.
Kevin Plasterer, Shippensburg Borough street foreman, said the possibility of relocating Rowe Road was first discussed in March 2011 because of concerns about safety and traffic flow.
The $1.4 million project moved forward the following year when Volvo expanded and two feasibility studies recommended the relocation, as well as installation of a traffic light on Route 11.
“There were conversations as Volvo was putting together a master plan to grow their plant,” Ross said.
Increased traffic was anticipated as a result of Volvo’s expansion, in addition to existing traffic to schools and Weis, he said.
“Safety was paramount to the decision to proceed,” Ross said.
Plasterer credited Ross with spearheading the project and helping to secure a $500,000 state grant. Funding was also provided by Southampton Township Franklin County, the Franklin County Area Development Corp., Shippensburg Borough, Volvo and the Cressler Family Partnership, owner of Weis Market.
The project took six years and was completed this summer. A temporary traffic signal was installed at the original intersection during construction, and the former Rowe Road is now used as a second access to Weis Market.
Ross said the project is a “unique partnership” that used public and private money and resulted from community and government working together.
“Through a lot of hard work, cooperation and collaboration, things can get done,” he said.
“From the very beginning, we were skeptical ... but we all worked together as stakeholders to accomplish the project,” he said. “It’s nice that everyone can work together. It’s been a long road.”
Plasterer said he has heard no complaints since the new road opened.
The ribbon-cutting is open to the public. People attending should park near Rowe Road in the Weis Market parking lot.