Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:
ICE facility in Pennsylvania is immoral and perhaps illegal
A Berks County facility that rakes in millions of federal dollars annually to function as a jailhouse for federally detained children and parents should be shut down. Today.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, concerned about conditions at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport — essentially, a prison for families — has made repeated requests to tour the facility. The requests have been denied and without explanation, according to Mr. DePasquale.
What are they trying to hide?
The Berks County Center is one of three such facilities in the United States used by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to detain families that either are seeking asylum in the United States or who entered the country illegally.
The 96-bed center has been under scrutiny for years but has been able to hang on, barely, to its state operating license.
Gov. Tom Wolf has said he’d like to see the center shuttered but claims he doesn’t have the legal firepower to get the job done. Now comes Mr. DePasquale, who held a press conference Dec. 11 to turn a public spotlight — again — on the center and its function, which amounts to a jail for children and their parents, not one of whom faces a single criminal charge.
Meantime, Berks County continues to fill its coffers with the proceeds from this suspect, if not immoral, enterprise. The federal government pays $12 million annually to run the facility — a $1.3 million profit for Berks County. The center employs about 60 people. The profit, the employment: shameful, ill-gotten gains.
“No one being held at the Berks facility is facing any criminal charges, but the center still essentially functions as a jail in which adults and children, sometimes mere babies, are detained,” Mr. DePasquale commented. At that point, one 6-year-old had been in custody at the facility for 167 days.
Time will tell that Berks County and Pennsylvania and the United States are on the wrong side of history. There are better ways to “detain” people seeking asylum in America. Detention facilities are not the way. And this particular facility in Berks County has a particularly troubled history.
Immigrants’ rights advocates allege systemic health and human rights abuses. In 2016, 22 detained mothers at the center went on a two-week hunger strike, saying their children had become suicidal after more than a year in detention. The same year, a guard at the center was convicted of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old asylum seeker who had been detained with her 3-year-old son for seven months. The center faced revocation of its license but that has been forestalled by a county appeal.
Meanwhile, Mr. DePasquale contends, the center is in violation of a federal court settlement that requires the release of children being held at a secured facility who have been caught on the border within 20 days if there are relatives in the United States to whom they can be released.
It is inhumane, expensive and illogical to detain the Berks County asylum seekers. They seek refuge in this country. That makes them likely to show up for court proceedings on their asylum applications. They should be released into the community with some oversight measures, as well as some support systems, in place. They should be treated with dignity and concern in the fashion Americans would wish to be treated should Americans ever seek asylum from another country. Community-based options should be established for these families as they wend their way through unreasonably lengthy immigration proceedings. These people could become the next generation of American citizens.
Are there too many police in school?
School safety and discipline are not the same thing.
At least, they shouldn’t be.
School safety is the odd system of fences and hurdles that strives to protect students. Safety is the omnipresent idea that surrounds schools in a post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-Parkland world where we know all too well that the place where kids should be safe is also a place where kids have died in terrible explosions of violence.
School discipline is a different animal. It’s more like a leash and collar. For some, it’s a gentle lead. For others, it’s a firm grip. It’s the enforcement of rules and reinforcement of policies that keep kids in line.
They are different spheres. There can be overlap. In too many instances of violence, the perpetrator is a student.
One reaction to calls for increased safety in the wake of mass shootings has been placing police officers, or school resource officers, in the halls.
“We’re proactive,” said Pittsburgh Public Schools police Chief George Brown. “A lot more fights would happen if there weren’t officers in the building.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools has 22 officers and 66 security guards in its 54 schools. That’s one police department employee for every 260 kids. In the 2018-19 school year, there were 266 arrests made in the district, and five Pittsburgh schools were on a list of those with the most arrests in the state.
That could sound like an argument for police, but some, including school board member Pam Harbin, co-founder of the Education Rights Network, feel it “changes the dynamic” of a school. There is some belief that a smaller police presence would lead to fewer interactions and therefore fewer arrests.
But that doesn’t explain the radically fluctuating numbers, with 2019’s 266 arrests bouncing like a lottery ball from 86 in 2018, 177 in 2017, just one in 2016 and 55 in 2015.
That sounds less like a school district operating as a police state than it does like 22,000 or so kids with changing needs and challenges, and a contingent of people providing security or discipline or just plain help as needed.
No, safety and discipline aren’t the same thing. But ideally, both would work toward the same goal — a school community that protects kids during the day and sends them home whole when the last bell rings.
Lifting up Philly’s struggling citizens must be a priority in the year ahead
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia’s population and prosperity fell so far for so long that any bit of good news used to be welcome. But two decades of real estate development in Center City, University City, and a half dozen other fast-evolving neighborhoods, as well as an increase in the number of residents for the first time since 1950, have raised expectations.
Take the recent federal report that found Philly’s poverty rate edging down from 25.7% in 2016 to 24.5% in 2018. It drew little attention (perhaps because we’re still the poorest of the nation’s biggest cities, even as the number trends downward).
Other recent data also offer a sobering perspective, but do suggest priorities to lift up more of Philly’s struggling citizens for the new decade.
Education, job training, and capital improvements in neighborhoods citywide — smart, targeted, training-to-job pipelines, not press releases — can help enfranchise swaths of the city that continue to struggle. Nurturing an innovation economy in neighborhoods with unique locational, architectural, or transit advantages also is in order.
Consider: An unprecedented nine straight years of job growth have the city approaching, but still 23 percent below, 1970 employment levels. Much of the increase is in unskilled, low-wage service positions.
And as The Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano reported last week, new census data show median incomes have fallen in 39 neighborhoods; among the latter are every section of Northeast Philadelphia save for Bridesburg. And 30 percent of the zip codes in Philadelphia continue to lose population.
So: Those lively streets and stylish new buildings gracing the Center City-University City core and surrounding neighborhoods seem to have had scant positive impact on the lives, let alone, the livelihoods, of the one in four Philly residents who live in poverty.
A City Council measure approved this month to require Community Benefit Agreements as part of certain major development projects could have more impact by formalizing ad hoc practices that have worked well between some developers and neighborhood groups. CBAs typically provide affordable housing, public improvements, or job training to attract public support for a project; as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote last week, 50 North Philly residents are being hired and trained as building trade apprentices at a construction project in the West Poplar neighborhood. The bill, which was heavily amended before approval, leaves open an opportunity for Council and the Kenney administration to write rules and regulations that can give CBAs more power and help more citizens.
More people working at jobs that pay well would begin to lift up the city’s poorest neighborhoods and would share the wealth-creating effects of real estate development not just with out-of-town condo buyers and investors, but with everyday citizens already living here. Inclusive growth policies also must work hand-in-hand with local and state efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration — one in 14 African American males in the city are under supervision by the criminal justice system — deeply damages the employment prospects of tens of thousands of city residents.
In many respects the era when managing the city’s decline has passed. Now the goal must be to ensure that all Philadelphians can share in their city’s rise.
Justice forms unifying issue
The Citizen’s Voice
The Republican-dominated state Legislature and the Democratic Wolf administration remain deeply divided on everything from gun control to taxation. But they have found common ground on which they have begun to build a common positive legacy regarding criminal justice reforms.
Gov. Tom Wolf this week signed a package of reforms to fight mass incarceration, especially by reducing recidivism by creating greater job opportunities for former inmates and mandating less technical enforcement of parole and probation terms.
And last week, the governor and a bipartisan group of legislators from both houses announced that, in cooperation with the Pew Charitable Trusts, the state will create task force to examine juvenile justice statewide and recommend improvements by November.
Pew long has been involved in juvenile justice reform. After a similar process in Kansas, for example, that state legislature adopted reforms to prevent low-level offenders from getting deeper into trouble, and focusing more resources on the most serious offenders to help them avoid a lifetime in the criminal justice system.
Pennsylvania has established reforms since the infamous kids-for-cash scandal in Luzerne County at the beginning of this decade, which illustrated the enormous power that a few individuals wield in a secretive system.
Yet Pennsylvania does not have a single juvenile justice system but 67 systems tied to local common pleas courts. And to protect the identity of juveniles, each continues to operate well outside the scope of public scrutiny that applies to other elements of the courts.
Juvenile justice and public safety are good issues to inspire the state officials’ rise above blind partisanship. Ideally, the experience also will inspire them to find bipartisan approaches to other major issues.
Let’s hope 2020 makes better year
The year that is about to end will be recorded as one of disgust, frustration, sadness and madness — one justifying fear about how it might impact 2020 and beyond in a negative way, both domestically and internationally.
Few need to be reminded of all the reasons. Even 10 editorials might be hard-pressed to render all of the specific observations that are apropos.
The year 1968 was dubbed in various ways such as “The Year That Changed The World” and “The Year That Shattered America.”
People can only imagine what descriptions will be attached to 2019 when historians, perhaps 50 years from now, look back on these dozen months, trying to make sense of all that transpired.
And, all of the unfortunate, troubling events cannot be heaped onto the shoulders of one individual or one group of individuals. Blame can be cast justifiably in many directions, both within and beyond this nation’s borders.
While Blair and the five other counties of the Southern Alleghenies region were fortunate in not having to experience problems of any scope near to what many other places endured this year, this region nonetheless was part of the sympathetic reactions to what happened to others.
And, sympathy and sadness were not necessary only once or twice but, instead, numerous times.
People of this part of Pennsylvania aren’t dogged by the possibility of massive wildfires and hurricanes. However, people here who have tried to stay informed have lived with the anger, agitation and frustration that have emanated from the divisive, polarized national political scene that seems only to be getting worse.
Additionally, they continue to be uneasy about “windows” for violence such as what has occurred in many other places — recognizing that this area, despite all of the good that exists here, is not immune from the possibility of tragic incidents and otherwise dangerous developments.
It is troubling to look back on a year that was rooted more in pessimism than optimism, but not being true to oneself accomplishes nothing.
Which raises the important point:
Don’t try to shed yourself of bad memories associated with 2019 by making bad decisions on this final day of the year. Be sensible in how you celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Begin 2020 on a positive note, not only regarding yourself but also on behalf of others whom your actions affect.
Amid all that, accept the fact that law enforcement officers who will be monitoring goings-on within the realm of their responsibilities tonight don’t take great joy in having to address troubling occurrences that could have been avoided. Rather, they are committed to protecting innocent, responsible people from individuals who are something less.
The enjoyable possibilities that tonight will hold should act as a respite from “The Experience of 2019” and the uneasy uncertainties of what 2020 might bring.
Again, there is so much that is good about this region, but for here — and everywhere else — good is fragile.
If you sing or listen to “Auld Lang Syne” tonight when 2019 gives way to 2020, be hopeful that the words “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet” really come to pass in the 12 months ahead.