Cumberland County will have a new district attorney in 2018, creating the potential for changes in how the criminal justice system operates.
After more than a decade at the helm, David Freed was nominated and confirmed as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Former district attorney and current common pleas judge Skip Ebert will take over the position in January.
District attorneys have a great deal of discretion and nearly all criminal cases flow through the office. However, the office receives far less attention than other pieces of the criminal justice system, like police, judges and jails.
John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, spoke to The Sentinel in October to explain why he saw district attorneys as the most influential actors 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.”
A change in the district attorney can mean changes in how that discretion is used, from which cases to offer deals and what deals to offer to which cases to seek harsh penalties, which to seek leniency and even what charges to bring.
All criminal charges must be approved by the district attorney’s office before filing in Cumberland County, a policy Ebert put in place during his previous tenure as the county’s chief law enforcement officer. Ebert had served as district attorney from 1995 to 2005.
Other counties in Pennsylvania allow police to file charges without seeking district attorney approval.
A study done by The Sentinel in October found Cumberland County on average brought less severe charges than surrounding counties without charging approval. Cumberland County also had lower bail amounts on average, lower use of the county jail and a higher conviction rate than surrounding counties, The Sentinel found.
As district attorney, Ebert will also have control of the staffing in his office and policy matters beyond the day-to-day decision making.
One notable example is the county’s appeal of a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court that deemed retroactively applying the current sex offender registry law unconstitutional.
Freed had made the decision to seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Ebert said he is still weighing his options.
He said that if proposed changes are made to the state law, he may withdraw the appeal, adding that a loss at the U.S. Supreme Court would set precedent for the entire country.
“If (the Legislature) addresses it satisfactorily, there might not be a need to proceed with it,” Ebert said.
Less than 2 percent of all charged with sex crimes in Cumberland County between 2013 and 2016 involved a person on the sex offender registry, according to analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
“Emotionally with victims and the public (the registry) sounds like a great idea, but how many people are really protected,” Ebert said. “We get plenty of arrests because people don’t register. It has a feel-good aspect to it, but I’m not sure it’s enhancing the public safety.”