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Poll Question: Public Safety v. Privacy?

License plate camera readers are now being installed at intersections across Allegheny County. The cameras snap high-resolution pictures of every car passing through an intersection, and then store them in a searchable database.

The $35,000 system enables police to not only identify license plate numbers but also zoom in on the car’s driver and other occupants.

It is unclear how long police will store the information and whether proper checks are in place to ensure that police do not misuse the system.

For example: “What if an officer suspected a girlfriend was cheating and wanted to check on her whereabouts?” asked Swissvale Police chief Greg Geppert, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Police say the cameras will help them nab car thieves and locate missing persons. Civil liberties groups say the cameras represent a potential invasion of privacy for law-abiding citizens. What do you think?

Do the public safety benefits of the new cameras outweigh privacy concerns?

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Pennsylvania Open-Records Laws

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky trial, there has been much talk about whether Penn State should suspend its elite football program, whether the iconic Joe Paterno statue should be removed, and whether more top brass at the university should be fired. These questions all deal with punishing the university for protecting a child predator. But a more pressing matter is how to ensure that such horrors never happen again.

That’s why we strongly support legislation that would bring Penn State under Pennsylvania’s open-records laws. Though supported by tax dollars, Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln universities all are inexplicably exempt from Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. That means Penn State’s records, including police reports, are closed to public view.

“Even the FBI must comply with open records filings, but not Penn State’s cops,” writes columnist Al Tompkins in Northwestern University’s Poynter.org. “That would become a key way the 1998 report about sexual misconduct by Jerry Sandusky stayed hidden for more than a decade.”

Second-Parent Adoption Law

Today in the United States there are some two million kids who are being raised by same-sex couples. But 30 states do not have laws allowing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) parents to both adopt.

As a result, many of these families face legal obstacles that heterosexual parents never have to worry about, according to a recent report by Movement Advancement Project, Family Equality Council, and Center for American Progress. Such obstacles range from a child’s ability to collect Social Security death benefits to a parent’s ability to make medical decisions for the child or receive visitation rights in the event of a breakup.

According to The New York Times: “The inequities don’t end there. If the biological or legal parent were to die or become disabled, the child could be placed with a distant relative or in foster care instead of staying with the nonlegal parent. Having a legal relationship also provides children with the right to sue over a parent’s wrongful death, and it usually gives them the right to inherit from a parent who dies without a will.”

Pennsylvania is among just five states that allow second-parent adoptions, which enables the partner of a legal parent to adopt even if the adults are not considered married. For more information on second-parent adoptions in Pennsylvania, call Spivak Law Firm at (412) 344-4900 or toll free at (800) 545-9390.

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law

Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law threatens to block more than 750,000 people across the state – including some 99,000 people in Allegheny County – from voting for our nation’s president in November, according to statistics released by PennDOT.

The new law, signed by Gov. Corbett in March 2012, is considered among the strictest of any state in the country. In order to vote, Pennsylvanians must now present at the polls a government-issued photo ID that includes an expiration date.

This could prove difficult for thousands of eligible voters across Pennsylvania, as nine counties do not even have driver’s license centers, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Pennsylvania’s new voter ID bill is “repulsive,” according to Terry Madonna, Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. An ACLU lawsuit to block the state’s new voter ID bill is now pending.

Pennsylvania PFA Law

At Spivak Law Firm, we strongly defend people served with PFA restraining orders. We know that the PFA system itself is frequently abused, causing many innocent people to suffer. But we also know that domestic violence is real, and we understand the need to provide immediate protections for victims of abuse.

We began handling PFA cases by representing victims of abuse on a pro bono basis for Neighborhood Legal Services Association. We recently recounted our representation of a woman seeking a PFA who was attacked by her husband and son along a busy street in Pittsburgh:

“A rail-thin woman sits hunched in a chair straining to breathe. She clutches a folder to her chest as though someone is threatening to snatch it. I call her name into the crowded room on the third floor of the Family Law Center in downtown Pittsburgh. She throws back her head, revealing two black eyes….”

To read our entire column on Pennsylvania PFA Law, go to page 26 of the Spring 2012 edition of the Pennsylvania Bar Association publication At Issue.

Pennsylvania Prison Conditions

Kudos to Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist Matt Stroud, whose report on prisoner suicides in Pennsylvania has been featured in Pro Publica’s list of “The Best Investigative Reporting on U.S. Prisons.”

Stroud, a Point Park University alum, spotlights the lack of mental health services for prisoners at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institute (SCI) at Cresson, a medium-security facility 90 miles east of Pittsburgh. Stroud notes in his article, originally published in The Nation, that a pending Department of Justice investigation into SCI Cresson and SCI Pittsburgh “could be a significant step toward banning solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners.”

The issue of whether solitary confinement – isolating inmates in empty, single cells for at least 23 hours a day – constitutes torture is expertly addressed by journalist Atul Gawande’s feature story “Hellhole,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2009 and also made Pro Publica’s list. Gawande cites multiple studies of prisoners, hostages, and prisoners of war showing that “without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that incurred a traumatic injury.”

The wide-scale use of isolation in American prisons began just 30 years ago with the first supermax prison in Marion, Illinois. Today our prisons hold as many as 80,000 American inmates in solitary confinement – many for non-violent breaches of prison rules, according to journalists James Ridgeway and Jean Casella of SolitaryWatch.com.

It is likely just a matter of time before the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits the use of solitary confinement as violating the 8th Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. Until then, we have top-flight reporters like Shroud and Gawande to thank for describing solitary confinement as it really is: legalized torture.

Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws that mandate life sentences for juveniles. The Court has evolved rather quickly on the issue of whether people should receive death sentences of life without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes they committed as juveniles.

Just seven years ago, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons that sentencing individuals to death for crimes they committed as youths constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. Thus, the juvenile death penalty was abolished.

Five years later, in 2010, the Court held in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence individuals under the age of 18 to life without parole in non-homicide cases. Thereafter, juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole for crimes involving murder.

Now in 2012, the Supreme Court held in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18 violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, the Court extended its ruling in Graham v. Florida to all juvenile offenders.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are now scrambling to figure out what to do with the 470 state inmates now serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, as the Miller decision may be declared retroactive.

A Second Chance for Juvenile Offenders

In Pennsylvania, 470 people are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. That’s more than any other state, according to a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

Fortunately, these inmates may get their sentences reduced due to the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

Prior to this ruling, the United States was the only country in the world that regularly applied life without parole for offenses committed before the age of 18, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

We strongly support the high court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, and here’s why:

In recent years, medical research has shown that teenagers’ brains are not fully developed as compared to adults. Specifically, the frontal lobes are not fully connected, which often results in poor decision-making – as any parent of teenagers can attest.

As a result, juveniles are “more likely to act on impulse, more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, and less likely think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions,” according to Dr. David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is supported by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association. These mental health organizations maintain that people who committed crimes as juveniles have an enhanced possibility of rehabilitation.

It is understandable that many victims of Pennsylvania’s 470 inmates oppose Miller v. Alabama, as it may result in the release of their perpetrators back into society. But we believe that, where possible, our criminal justice system should emphasize rehabilitation over retribution.

Budget Cuts Target Pennsylvania’s Poorest

Some 70,000 of Pennsylvania’s poorest citizens get checks from the state for more $200 a month. These people have no other sources of income. They qualify for cash assistance under the Department of Public Welfare’s strict income and resources guidelines. Many of these people cannot work because they care for a disabled loved one. Others were certified as unable to work by their physician.

But this meager assistance is being cut off. As of next month, Pennsylvania will no longer provide cash grants of General Assistance to the state’s poorest. As members of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Social Security Practitioners Committee, we support a formal resolution to restore funding of the state’s General Assistance Cash Grant Program. Please join us in opposing these budget cuts by contacting your state lawmakers today.