March 10, 2011

HARRISBURG, PA – Improving public safety, using science and technology to identify criminals, and seeking justice for victims of crime led Pennsylvania’s district attorneys today to present their top priorities for the 2011-2012 General Assembly.  At a Capitol Rotunda news conference, leaders of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) said the legislative proposals announced today are necessary to protect the public and improve the criminal justice system.

“These recommendations come from the front lines of fighting crime and ensuring offenders are held accountable for their criminal acts,” said Edward M.  Marsico, Jr., president of the PDAA and District Attorney of Dauphin County. “District attorneys experience first-hand what works and what needs to be improved in our criminal justice system.  When something isn’t working, it is our job to try to fix it.”

The legislative priorities announced today demonstrate the association’s commitment to an on­going examination of the criminal justice system and identification of critical public safety changes that should be enacted.  These priorities were approved at the PDAA’s winter business meeting in February.  With over 1200 members, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association represents all of the state’s 67 elected and appointed district attorneys as well as assistant district attorneys and other prosecutors in Pennsylvania.

“In addressing the serious public safety issues in Pennsylvania, recognizing the stress of corrections costs on state and local budgets, and the ongoing obligation to ensure justice for both victims, district attorneys look forward to continuing to work with the legislature and governor to enact solutions to our most immediate criminal justice challenges,” said R. Seth Williams, PDAA Legislative Chair and District Attorney of Philadelphia.  “We have already begun to work with both the Governor’s Office and General Assembly, and we are seeing important progress.”

The PDAA’s 2011-2012 legislative priorities seek to close loopholes in Megan’s Law, control synthetic drugs that are wreaking havoc in our communities, identify ways of simultaneously improving public safety and controlling corrections costs, expand our use of DNA to identify criminals, update the Wiretap Act so that criminals are not more technologically advanced than law enforcement, and streamline the capital appeals process in order to shorten the endless appellate delays.

“We have the best criminal justice system in the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better,” said Marsico.  “Our proposed reforms are comprehensive and will help to ensure our communities are safer, our legal system better, and victims of crime are both protected and considered in the system.”

Public Safety and Protection

Close Loopholes in Megan’s Law that Permit Out of State and Transient Sex Offenders to Escape Registration Requirements: Megan’s Law is an important tool for the public to know if sex offenders are nearby.  It requires sexual offenders to register with the State Police and that provides identifying information about these offenders to be posted on a public website.  Unfortunately, as a result of two recent court cases, both out of state sex offenders moving to Pennsylvania and transient sex offenders face no penalties if they do not register as sex offenders.  These loopholes, while unintended, are literally permitting groups of sex offenders across the Commonwealth to escape registration requirements.  Legislation must be enacted to require them to register with State Police and for their information to be placed on the Megan’s Law website.

The House of Representatives has already acted and passed bills to close these loopholes, and the Senate has begun the process when its Judiciary Committee recently reported a bill to close the out-of-state sex offender loophole.  We call upon both the House and Senate to get these pieces of legislation to Governor Tom Corbett in April.

Make Bath Salts and K2/Spice Illegal: Pennsylvania, like many other states, is witnessing a very dangerous trend – synthetic drugs that are legal, but dangerous and deadly.  One such synthetic drug is bath salts, which are powerful synthetic stimulants designed to be comparable to cocaine or methamphetamine with similar risks.  Bath salts are deadly and legal.  They must be made illegal now.

K2/Spice is a mixture of common herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana.  It is such a dangerous drug that the DEA has recently banned it.  So that our state courts can have jurisdiction over cases involving K2/Spice, state legislation banning it should be enacted.

The House Judiciary Committee recently approved legislation banning both drugs and we call on both the House and Senate to pass this legislation quickly.

Controlling Corrections Costs and Improving Public Safety: Pennsylvania’s district attorneys recognize the enormous strain that corrections costs place on our state budget.  We believe that some measures can be implemented that will both control costs and improve public safety.  We intend to work with the Governor, the General Assembly, Corrections Secretary designee John Wetzel, and Parole Board Chairman Catherine McVey to identify and implement such measures.  At the same time, we will identify and fight against proposals that seek to cut costs at the expense of public safety.  We know that the overwhelming majority of inmates in our state correctional facilities belong in prison, because they have committed a current or past violent offense or have a lengthy history of criminal behavior.  States that have effectively managed their prison population and improved public safety have done so by investing in sound programs and practices, and reinvested that cost savings back into the criminal justice system.  That is the smart and effective approach to addressing our correctional costs.

Using Science and Technology to Identify and Prosecute Violent Offenders

Identify Criminals by expanding DNA technology: DNA technology ensures accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system.  Grounded in biology, statistics, and genetics, DNA evidence can be used to identify criminals, clear suspects, and even exonerate persons mistakenly accused or convicted of crimes.

In order to make better and fuller use of DNA technology, Pennsylvania should enact legislation to expand the pool from which DNA samples may be taken, including taking samples from some offenders upon arrest and allowing law enforcement to compare crime scene DNA to DNA samples of a relative of a potential suspect, known as Familial DNA testing.  Prosecutors also stress that adequate funding of the Pennsylvania State Police will ensure that the DNA database backlog is eliminated.

Update the Wiretap Act: Pennsylvania’s criminals are often more technologically advanced than our law enforcement.  That is because the last time the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act was updated was 1998.  Since then, technology has made sweeping advances making it necessary to update the law in order to stay one step ahead of criminals who deal drugs, engage in organized crime, possess child pornography, and commit terrorist activity.  The updates district attorneys are calling for relate to the technological developments in digital telephony, prepaid cell phones, caller ID¸ voice mail, and e-mail to ensure that serious criminals are brought to justice.

Ensuring Justice

Streamline Capital Appeals Process: There is a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania, because of an endless appellate process that permits convicted murderers to file petition after petition with our appellate courts, no matter how frivolous.  While due process is a fundamental element to provide checks and balances in the process, the length of the appeals process, certain litigation techniques, and the process of issuing death warrants have eroded the deterrent effect of the death penalty and delay justice for victims.

Just as prosecutors worked improve the use of and access to DNA technologies to ensure justice in capital cases and other criminal prosecutions, district attorneys will propose several measures to streamline the capital appeals process, make death warrants meaningful, and identify other reforms which will provide additional credibility and accountability in the system.