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The Eastern District of Pennsylvania Leads the Charge on Former Inmate Reintegration

It is no secret that incarceration rates in the United States are higher than in most large western democracies. On the Federal level, high incarceration rates can be traced to sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences for drug and violent crimes, and increased plea bargaining. However, our society cannot simply value punishment without rehabilitation, because after […]

It is no secret that incarceration rates in the United States are higher than in most large western democracies. On the Federal level, high incarceration rates can be traced to sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences for drug and violent crimes, and increased plea bargaining. However, our society cannot simply value punishment without rehabilitation, because after all, those who go to prison will eventually be released and come home to our communities.

This past summer, I had the privilege of working for the United States Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, an experience I will carry with me during my professional career. This article discusses my experience with the Supervision to Aid Reentry Program (hereinafter “STAR”), a first of its kind reentry program developed by jurists and legal professionals within the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, geared toward helping former federal inmates reintegrate into society. Since its creation, the STAR Program has become a model post-release reintegration program adopted by many additional federal and state jurisdictions across the United States.

In 1984, the United States Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which eliminated parole for all federal defendants convicted after November 1, 1987. All federal inmates are required to serve their full sentences, which in many cases are heavier than state sentences because of sentencing guidelines and statutory minimums. Additionally, inmates do have an opportunity to earn up to 54 days per year for good behavior. Upon release, former inmates are typically placed under “supervised release” and monitored by officers of the United States Probation Office. However, recidivism rates, which are the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested and charged with similar offenses, remained high, with many former federal inmates being sent back to prison for probation violations or convictions for new crimes.

In 2007, members of bench for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created the STAR Program, better known as Reentry Court, to help recently released federal inmates, who had served lengthy prison terms, reintegrate into the community. The program is voluntary and typically lasts for 52 weeks. The eligibility criteria include individuals with a significant risk of recidivism and/or history of violent crimes, who are Philadelphia residents. The groups, or classes, contain up to 20 participants currently on supervised release, who appear as a group every two weeks before U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice or Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge L. Felipe Restrepo. The bi-weekly meetings allow the program participants to report on their progress regarding developments with employment or with their personal lives. U.S. Probation Officers, together with Federal Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys and Judges, assist participants with obtaining an education, employment, housing support, and financial literacy. The program culminates in a graduation ceremony attended by Judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Judges (many of whom were the original sentencing judges), U.S. Magistrate Judges, Federal Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, and most importantly, friends and family members of the graduates. From my modest experience as an aspiring attorney, it is a rare instance where a courtroom is a place of celebration, where leaders of the Pennsylvania legal community come together to ensure the post-release success of those who have duly served their time.

Punishment can come in many forms, and the failure of the justice system or the community to help properly reintegrate former inmates who served their sentence punishes them further and harms the legitimacy of the justice system’s major tenet of rehabilitation. As citizens living within the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, we should be proud of the federal jurists and legal professionals who came together and created such an important program which addresses the struggles and barriers faced by an often neglected population: those who have served their time and now must reenter the community. Thomas Paine once said, “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty . . . . He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates his duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

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Pivotal Politics: Pennsylvania’s Crucial Role in the 2018 Midterms

For the second time in less than two years, Pennsylvania will play a pivotal role in a federal election cycle. With the redrawing of the Commonwealths congressional districts, coupled with multiple incumbent retirements from the U.S House delegation, Pennsylvania is poised to become a political battle as the 2018 mid-term elections ramp up. First-term midterm […]

For the second time in less than two years, Pennsylvania will play a pivotal role in a federal election cycle. With the redrawing of the Commonwealths congressional districts, coupled with multiple incumbent retirements from the U.S House delegation, Pennsylvania is poised to become a political battle as the 2018 mid-term elections ramp up.

First-term midterm elections are historically bad for the party that holds power, and in many cases are viewed as a referendum on the current administration. The 2018 elections are nothing different in that regard. What is different this year are the many complex and unusual circumstances that have led to the recent redistricting in Pennsylvania and the state’s new pivotal position in the upcoming national elections. It is the goal of this essay to provide a brief overview of the events leading up to Pennsylvania’s new congressional map and produce an analysis of potential ramifications from the PA Supreme Courts recent redistricting decision on the make-up of the United States House of Representatives.

Background

The League of Women Voters and a group of Democratic citizens filed a lawsuit in 2017 arguing that the Congressional Map put into place in 2011 was unconstitutional according to the Pennsylvania State Constitution. The essence of the language in the lawsuit was that the 2011 Congressional Map discriminated against democratic voters. The PA Supreme Court chose to hear the case in early 2018 and the situation intensified from there.

In January of 2018, the PA Supreme Court heard oral arguments and subsequently issued a decision overturning the 2011 Congressional Map. This decision initiated a period in which the state legislature would draft a new map and submit it to the governor for approval or veto. In early February, the United States Supreme Court rejected a request for a stay from the State Senate President and State House Speaker, in which they claim that the PA Supreme Court took power away from the State Assembly, per the United States Constitution. Following the initiation of said lawsuit, the State Legislature submitted a new map to Governor Wolf, who rejected the plan. State Democratic Leaders and the Governor then submitted their own plan directly to the PA Supreme Court, who began drafting a version of a new Congressional map with the help of an outside consultant. A new Congressional map was presented, and Congressional candidates statewide now have a nomination petition deadline of March 20th, separate from all other candidates in the commonwealth.

The information listed above is consolidated to provide a brief background of the events that lead to the new 7th Congressional District in the Lehigh Valley, formerly the 15th District. If you are interested in a more complex overview of the situation, the Philadelphia Inquirer has published an article that provides more context.

Where We Stand

So, what does this new congressional map mean for the future of the Lehigh Valley and the makeup of the United States House of Representatives after the 2018-midterm elections?

Nationally, many politicos see the March 13th Special Election in Western Pennsylvania, where the two candidates, Rick Saccone and Connor Lamb, who will never face each other again, as a preview to the elections in November. As I have mentioned in a previous article, middle-class, white voters were essential to Trump’s victory.

Pennsylvania being a Rust Belt state, is full of these types of voters. Depending on their view of the President and the Party, rust belt voters may once again play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of both the March 13th Special Election and the 2018 Midterms, if they show up to vote.

Locally, the new 7th Congressional District is radically different from the former 15th District. The two remaining Republican Candidates, Olympic Gold Medalist and President of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioner Marty Nothstein, and former Lehigh County Commissioner and Local Businessman Dean Browning, will face off in the May Primary. The winner of that race will then become the Republican nominee for the November General Election. The Lehigh Valley has been represented by a Republican since the late 1990’s, with outgoing GOP Congressman Charlie Dent holding the seat since 2004.
In short, Pennsylvania is once again positioned to be a determining factor in the makeup of the federal government, just as it was in the 2016 Presidential Elections when President Trump won the state. Over the past two years, Pennsylvania has certainly earned the title of “Swing State.” Judging by the issues currently at play, “swing state” is a title the Commonwealth will hold well into the future depending on the outcome of the federal courts ruling on the states redistricting.

Lai, Jonathan. “Pennsylvania, gerrymandered: A guide to Pa.s congressional map redistricting fight – Philly.” Philly.com. March 09, 2018. Accessed March 10, 2018. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/state/pennsylvania-gerrymandering-case-congressional-redistricting-map-coverage-guide-20180308.html.

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Pennsylvania, the Presidency, & Populism

For the first time since 1988, the year Ronald Reagan left office; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to a Republican Presidential nominee. Pennsylvania proved its worth as a swing state in the 2017 election cycle after nearly three decades of statewide Democratic presidential victories. During the previous thirty years, Pennsylvania was hit hard […]

For the first time since 1988, the year Ronald Reagan left office; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to a Republican Presidential nominee. Pennsylvania proved its worth as a swing state in the 2017 election cycle after nearly three decades of statewide Democratic presidential victories. During the previous thirty years, Pennsylvania was hit hard by the decline in American manufacturing, notably in the steel sector, and increased regulation of the Coal industry that occurred under the Obama administration. The Steel and Coal industries have long been the benchmark of many Pennsylvanian families, and have touched the lives of many generations.

As the once thriving steel and coal towns moved deeper into a post-industrial economy, many struggled but never forgot. As Donald Trump and Mike Pence traveled around the state, visiting towns that once supplied most of the steel during the infrastructure expansion in the post-war era, thousands poured into stadiums and town centers to attend their rallies. Many of these citizens may not have worked in those industries, but their parents and grandparents did, and that proved meaningful. Like many populists in history, Trump said the right things, at the right time, to the right audiences. He promised to restore American manufacturing and use more American steel domestically, which would benefit Pennsylvania and the rust belt immensely. However, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, American companies produced 70% of the steel used in the United States in 2016. That is a lot of steel, but it does not feel that way to many rust belt residents. In order for the Trump administration to achieve the promised restorations of the steel industry that Pennsylvanian trump voters care about, simply increasing the domestic use of American-produced steel from 70% to 100% is not the answer. The solution lies in the increase in infrastructure spending and expansion through the passage of infrastructure legislation reminiscent of the Eisenhower era. Only then can the steel industry expand domestically and the national infrastructure dilemma be addressed and ultimately solved. From dams in California to bridges in Pennsylvania and highways nationwide, if properly designed infrastructure legislation is introduced it is clear that such legislation could garner bi-partisan support, create more jobs, and restore the national interior.

But infrastructure and steel are not the only major issues that helped Trump turn Pennsylvania red for the first time in three decades. The lack of Democratic voter turnout in two key areas, Scranton and Philadelphia, helped push Trump over the top. Both cities voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the previous two election cycles, and the DNC believed that they would do so again for Clinton. However, it is clear that Clinton was no Obama and her lack of visibility in those two areas leading up to the election proved fatal. In Philadelphia, Clinton received about 550,000 votes to Trumps 100,000. That is not all that unusual, but Clinton’s numbers were still about 45,000 votes shy of Obama’s in the 2008 election. Those extra votes probably would not have given Clinton a victory in Pennsylvania, but they could have helped. In Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, Clinton did win the county, but her margin was far less than her counterpart in 2008 and 2012. Lackawanna is coal country, and the Clinton Campaigns discussion of increased regulation of the coal industry during the election coupled with the lack of democratic voter turnout and an increase in Democrat to Republican voter registration changes contributed to Trump’s victory.

As the new administration begins to address the infrastructure dilemma that our nation surely faces, the question becomes; can meaningful and extensive legislation be proposed and passed? Individuals from both sides have shown support for Trumps $1 Trillion infrastructure plan because of the belief that it will create millions of jobs. Former Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Trump’s infrastructure plan but believes that the proposed $1 Trillion may not be enough. Furthermore, a spokesman for the Chairman of the Freedom Caucus has stated that conservative lawmakers within the caucus are open to increased transportation spending if more clarification can be made on specific projects. When two very different groups, such as the ones mentioned above, show support for an Executive proposal it is clear that the proposal has serious potential to move forward. Infrastructure spending is something that benefits the country as a whole regardless of the political party that someone identifies with, the potential for the restoration of the American interior is possible now more the ever.

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The Moderate Millennial

It should come as no surprise that the millennial generation is deeply distraught with the current path our country is taking in both a societal and fiscal sense. The chaotic and unpredictable events of the last sixteen years have shaped their beliefs and provided an understanding that their standard of living and upward mobility mechanisms […]

It should come as no surprise that the millennial generation is deeply distraught with the current path our country is taking in both a societal and fiscal sense. The chaotic and unpredictable events of the last sixteen years have shaped their beliefs and provided an understanding that their standard of living and upward mobility mechanisms may be less certain than their parent’s generation. For the first time in modern American history, the millennial generation, which comprises individuals born between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s, will no longer be guaranteed stable jobs that allow for the type of comfortable middle-class lifestyle that their parents could expect upon entering the workforce.

The unhappiness in the political process extends both ways for millennials who have supported unconventional candidates in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. The major candidate divide occurs when the factors of college education and regional attitudes are taken into account. While it is clear that more millennial voters lean toward the Democratic side rather than Republican, it is due in part to the younger median age of metropolitan areas combined with the saturation of higher educational institutions located in major population centers.

Even more concerning is that the majority of millennials have supported candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who represent the extremes of both the left and the right. This attitude is due in part to the Great Recession and its effects on both their parent’s finances coupled with their massive student loan debt and the inability to find jobs that allow for both the paying down of student loans and the purchasing of a first home.

The rise of a candidate like Bernie Sanders, who garnered support from more than 50% of millennials, should be taken very seriously moving forward. Not only because of his suggested massive federal entitlement program expansions, but also because of his self-proclaimed social agenda which increases regulations in certain, already deprived industries, while also calling for a revolution of sorts during a time when the American electorate is divided on almost all issues.

It is of merit to discuss why Bernie Sander’s democratic socialism has appealed so strongly to this generation. More millennials are moving back in with their parents after college because of the social safety net that they can provide. Social “safety nets” are the keystone of Sanders Socialism, however, unsustainable those social “safety nets” may be. It is also highly likely that millennials will not see any return on their investments from federal withholdings for social security from paychecks they are currently earning. These federal withholdings are placed in the federal social security program, which, according to the annual report from the Social Security Board of Trustees, is fiscally unsustainable and will become insolvent by the late 2030’s unless it is addressed in the next decade.

For these Bernie Sanders supporters, they see a rigged system working against them fiscally, socially, and institutionally. What makes zero sense is their strategy to vote for a self-proclaimed socialist who would expand the government exponentially, and therefore strengthen the system they claim to be rigged.

In contrast, a surprising number of millennials are supporting Republican nominee Donald Trump, who, like Sanders, is a Washington outsider who has a unique funding mechanism of his own. According to a poll released by the Harvard Institute of Politics in mid-2016, 25% of people between ages 18-30 support Donald Trump, while another 14% are unsure who will win their support in November.

The nomination of Donald Trump has tapped into the subset of those millennial voters in the same way that Sanders has.  Although both candidates have radically different political propositions, their end goals are similar. They are both advocating radical change: change that counters the supposed establishment. Many millennials are genuinely distraught with the fallout from the 2008 Financial Crisis because of the toll it took on their parent’s retirement plans and their own prospects for employment. Many of these younger Trump supporters also grew up in areas of the country hit hard by the decline in American manufacturing in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, which directly affected their parent’s employment options. The Keystone Research Center recently released their 2016 State of Working Pennsylvania report, which outlines many of the issues that have given way to Trump’s strong appeal to these more rural millennial voters who were raised in former manufacturing hubs. While it is clear that a majority of millennials lean toward the Democratic Party, Trump will continue to garner support from part of the millennial generation who also believe the institutional bureaucracy is rigged against their ability to enter the workforce with the expectation of upward mobility like previous generations.

There are also regional factors to take into account for many millennial Trump supporters; they are overwhelmingly from rural and in some cases, suburban areas. Also, unlike many Sanders supporters who live in metropolitan areas with large academic infrastructures, a majority of millennial Trump supporters have not attended any higher educational institution. Individuals who enter the workforce without a bachelor’s degree have still not seen their earnings fully recover some twenty years after the initial decline of the American manufacturing sector.

The real question will become, can this generation pivot toward the center, combining ideas and strategies from both political platforms to create fiscal and societal compromises that will create success in this new American century? If these compromises are not achieved, will the divide grow deeper and ignite more unrest as we continue moving deeper into the 21st century?

It is clear that the future belongs to the millennials, but as time drags on and we move closer to the millennial majority in all American institutions, can we collaborate and lead, or will we splinter and surrender to our own stubbornness. We can no longer rely solely on decisions that older generations make for our future. Millennials from all walks of life need to embrace the mindset that we are all in a similar situation that will require constant vigilance in order to change and reform our societal and fiscal future.

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Republican Response to Public Pension Reform

As we approach the two-hundredth and forty-second day without a Pennsylvania state budget, 2016 holds no promise of quelling the budget impasse that is raging in Harrisburg. There is one issue that has contributed more then anything else to the Commonwealth’s partisan fiscal tensions present today. This issue has been ignored by some and inherited […]

As we approach the two-hundredth and forty-second day without a Pennsylvania state budget, 2016 holds no promise of quelling the budget impasse that is raging in Harrisburg. There is one issue that has contributed more then anything else to the Commonwealth’s partisan fiscal tensions present today. This issue has been ignored by some and inherited by others; it is the Public Pension problem. Addressing the fiscal issue that is State Pension Reform is not only essential in providing future generations of Pennsylvanians with opportunities that their parents had, but also imperative if we aim to once again become a leader among the states that comprise our union.

To begin, we will examine decisions made by our leaders in a time when recessions and economic downturns seemed somewhat improbable because of the 1990’s economic boom. This economic boom was the longest, continuous, economic expansion of its size in U.S History and leads many pension programs across the country to increase benefits for retirees. The Pennsylvania State Pension Benefit increase, which is the single biggest contributor to the states budget problems, began in 2001. Decisions made by legislators in 2001 with Act 9 and to a lesser extent in 2002 and 2003 with Act 38 and Act 40, can be traced as some of the roots of our current fiscal predicament. Because the economy was doing so well in the decade prior to 2001, Act 9 seemed feasible at the time it was passed. Basically, what Act 9 did was make a political compromise with the Pennsylvania State Education Association by increasing pension benefits by using positive investment returns to cover the increased cost. The fiscal platform created for Act 9 basically absorbed the increased pension benefit costs over the following decade. Since these new pension benefits required strong investment returns to stay solvent, something legislators at the time took for granted, it is no surprise that this plan ultimately lead to an increase in allocated tax payer money once investment returns decreased. In 2002 Act 38 was passed, which included benefit increases to retirees who were not included in 2001. The following year, after another bad cycle of investment returns, the taxpayer-funded support began to grow. In 2003, once Harrisburg realized that the Act 9 platform was no longer attainable, Act 40 was passed which essentially refinanced the financial deficiencies acquired from Act 9 by spreading pension obligations out over a 30-year period. By 2010, the taxpayer-funded liabilities reached $1 Billion and by the 2015-2016 fiscal year they have reached about $3.8 Billion. The growth rate of our pension benefit system is beyond Pennsylvania’s means and as you can tell, it is not sustainable. The fiscal “Can” has been kicked down the road for far to long and now it is up to our current legislative leadership to pick the can up and throw it away.

This pension dilemma can and will be addressed, there is no other option. The Republican proposed platform for responding to and reorganizing the states public pension system lies in a process that is prevalent among private sector employees and companies. The Republican plan includes a “defined contribution” program that is essentially a 401K-style retirement plan. This plan is aimed more so at future employees. These future employees would be required to contribute about 3% of their earnings. These earnings (about 3%) would be placed into a cash balance plan that would earn interest from yields on U.S Treasury Bonds. The interest would be capped at 4%. Future earnings for both PSERS and SERS employees will see an increased contribution of 3% and 2.5% respectively. This proposed plan transfers the risk from future recessions or other financial problems away from Pennsylvanian taxpayers while also protecting the retirement security of state employees. As stated above, this type of retirement plan is common among private sector employees and can provide public employees a retirement plan that fits the needs of our current economic environment.
This article aims to give the reader a basic understanding of what has contributed to the pension problems but in no way pretends to address every aspect of this very complex situation. It is recommended that anyone seeking more information on this subject review material available on the Pennsylvania state legislative website.

In closing, pension reforms require trade offs and bi-partisan support which has always been clear. But continuing to fund a program created during a fundamentally different fiscal environment can only cause economic catastrophe for future generations. As we walk deeper into this American century, it is clear that Pennsylvanian lawmakers will have to make tough decisions in order to guarantee future generations the ability to grow and flourish.

Commonwealth Foundation, “Pennsylvania Pensions: Man-Made Financial Disasters” (March 7, 2006)
See Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1

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