Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Supporting a Good Cause

Montgomery County prosecutors, public defenders and workers in other county departments often get involved with charitable work outside of their day jobs and should be congratulated and thanked for the support they give to charities countywide.

A good example, county Assistant District Attorney Lindsay O’Brien has been volunteering in her spare time to help plan the Superhero 5K/1 Mile Fun Run for Variety - the Children’s Charity of the Greater Delaware Valley, which provides services for kids with physical and developmental disabilities.

“This is one of the biggest fundraisers that Variety does every year and it’s one of the best ways to bring awareness about Variety,” said O’Brien, explaining the fundraiser is organized specifically by Young Variety, a board that is comprised of young professionals who assist the organization.

“I’m going to do the walk,” O’Brien laughed. “I’m not a runner.”
Montco Asst. District Attorney Lindsay O'Brien

In addition to prosecuting criminals by day, O’Brien is a board member of Young Variety during her off time and is part of the promotional committee for the upcoming run.

The event is being held at 8 a.m. Sept. 19 at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Registration opens at 6:30 a.m.

The Variety Club Camp and Development Center has had a lot of success building confidence in kids with disabilities at its 80-acre facility along Potshop Road in Worcester, Montgomery County. The Variety Club Camp, which serves youths between the ages of 5 and 21 with special needs, is a program offered by Variety’s Greater Philadelphia chapter, which is a branch of the national Variety nonprofit.

I think Cheryl Kehoe Rogers, content editor at The Times Herald, said it best in a column she wrote in May.

“Bottom line – Variety Club needs money. The parents and professionals that are really hands-on with Variety Club fundraising are doing everything they can to keep this beautiful place afloat. But, there are so many needs to be met...,” Rogers wrote, adding if Variety Club goes away “so do the programs for these great kids who don’t have a lot of options.”

The camp’s 80-acre facility operates as a day and overnight camp during the summer, and this season had about 200 campers a day at the facility, according to published reports. During the winter, the camp becomes a weekend retreat facility and offers a vocational program during the week.

“Variety has a camp that serves kids with developmental disabilities that allows kids who might not otherwise go to camp to go to camp during the summer at a place that’s specifically designed for their special needs,” O’Brien said. “It’s a charity that’s constantly in need of as much funding as it can get to be able to support the kids.”

Sponsorship opportunities for the run are also available. For more information about the race or to sign up, check out the website at

“We had a pretty good turnout last year,” said O’Brien, who hopes for a strong show of support during this Saturday’s run.

So put on your running or walking shoes and get out there to help a great organization.

And kudos to O'Brien for her charitable work.

'Bocce for Baldo' Raises Funds for Montco Sheriff's K9 Unit

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department recently received more than $2,300 in donations, which will be used to purchase safety equipment for its K9 unit, during the second annual “Bocce for Baldo” memorial bocce tournament held Sept. 12 at the Holy Saviour Club in Norristown.

“We had great success with our bocce tournament this weekend!” proudly exclaimed Teresa Harris, public information assistant in the sheriff’s office.

The tournament was named after a former sheriff’s deputy, Corporal James Baldovsky, who passed away from cancer on March 9, 2014.  Baldovsky also previously worked as a Towamencin Township Police Department K9 officer. 

Baldovsky was known at the department as a passionate supporter of K9s.

Sheriff Russll J. Bono (l) poses with Baldovsky''s widow, Marie and  Deputy Thomas Franklin and K9 Behr/Photo courtesy of Sheriff's Department

From Left: Deputy Thomas Franklin and K9 Behr, Sheriff Russell J. Bono, Deputy Trevor Keller and K9 Artus, K9 Unit Leader Cpl. Richard Miles, and Deputy Sean Forsyth and K9 Bikkel./Photo Courtesy of Sheriff's Dept.
Baldovsky’s widow, Marie, joined the sheriff and members of the K9 Unit to dedicate a safety vest for K9 Behr, and to lay an inscribed bocce court brick near center court. 

Last year, the event raised $2,000, which was used to purchase protective vests for the department’s three K9s.

Kudos to the sheriff's department for keeping its canine partners protected.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Receives Federal Grant to Study Impact of Diversion Programs

Diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration have been in the news a lot during the last several years, nationwide and locally.

Now comes word that the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) has received competitive grant funds from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the impact of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders with a drug and alcohol dependency. 

“We at PCCD are entrusted with ensuring that our programs and those we fund are effective and results-oriented,” said commission Chairman Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner who was appointed to the state commission earlier this year. “This funding will allow us to measure the impact that these programs are having so we can continue working to improve the criminal justice system.”

Fifty-six counties throughout Pennsylvania receive PCCD funding in support of County Intermediate Punishment Programs that address alcohol and drug dependency among non-violent offenders. These programs support treatment as well as assessment, evaluation, case management, and supervision services for offenders, according to officials. The goal of these programs is to provide offenders with treatment to reduce recidivism rates, PCCD officials said.
Josh Shapiro/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

On average, PCCD supports the diversion of approximately 1,600 offenders annually from incarceration to Intermediate Punishment Programs, which equates to thousands of total jail days averted, officials said.
An initial study of the Intermediate Punishment Program also indicates a low recidivism rate for the participants (22%), demonstrating that the program has a positive impact on future behaviors.

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics has awarded PCCD $100,995 which will allow for a comprehensive study comparing offenders who participated in Intermediate Punishment Programs versus similar offenders who received incarceration sentences.

The study seeks to measure the impact of diversionary programs on recidivism in the Commonwealth against a control group. In addition, funds will be used for GIS-mapping projects to allow for greater accessibility for the public and decision-makers.

Just a note: Shapiro is also chairman of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, where the court system has had a drug treatment court since April 2006. That program, funded by the county commissioners, is an innovative approach to disposing of drug-fueled criminal offenses in a way that offers participants intensive help to fight their addictions, encourages them to change their lifestyles and offers them the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the charges against them or to have their court supervision terminated early.

Participation in the program, which is voluntary, is at least 15 months long and may last as long as three years. The length of the program depends on how well an offender succeeds in dealing with the addiction and becoming a productive, crime-free citizen. The program, which is overseen by county Judge Steven T. O'Neill, typically has 130 participants at any given time.
Drug Court Gavel

Two years ago, I examined the county's drug court and found that, according to county statistics, between April 21, 2006, when the treatment court was implemented, and Dec. 5, 2012, when the program held its 43rd graduation ceremony, there were 186 graduates. During that time period, 33 of those graduates – or only about 18 percent – had been rearrested - meaning 82 percent of the drug court graduates remained arrest-free since their graduations. Non drug court addicts in the criminal justice system have a re-arrest rate of more than 60 percent, Judge O’Neill said at the time, echoing statistics cited by The National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Defenders Address Clients' Transitions Back to Society

Those who have done time behind bars for crimes often find it difficult to transition back home once they’ve paid their debt to society, including trouble finding employment and housing opportunities.

“The first thing is finding employment. There are many challenges for people with criminal histories. Employers are looking for stable people who will be there every day, who will fulfill their roles and bring benefits to the employer’s company,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director and founder of 
The Center for Returning Citizens, a Philadelphia organization that helps people transition from incarceration to society. “Violence on a record can scare employers.”

According to the organization’s website it is “dedicated to restorative approaches in battling the effects of mass incarceration upon individuals, families and the community.” The organization embraces “a culture of hard work, family responsibility, community involvement, ethical behavior and social consciousness,” according to its website.

“We help them create a life plan and set goals. We provide a foundation for their lives. We find employment. We find housing,” said Harrell, adding the organization also assists former inmates with obtaining drug and alcohol or mental health counseling. “Whatever a person needs to sustain them in their day-to-day life, that’s our focus.”
J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director The Center for Returning Citizens

Harrell said the organization accomplishes its goals through programs that provide counseling for the children of incarcerated parents; provide social and educational opportunities for at-risk youth in communities; and assist citizens returning from prison, both male and female, and those who have been home for various time periods but are still suffering from mass incarceration and its effect on their transition to freedom.

In August, Harrell, at the request of county Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone, appeared in county court during a sentencing hearing for convicted robber William Lee Adams to tell a judge about the benefits of the special re-entry program.

Montco Assistant Public Defender Alexander De Simone
“We took a creative stand on sentencing. It’s a re-entry program,” De Simone told me, adding Adams, 48, previously spent 20 years in prison as a young man. “That’s the prime of your life. That’s when you learn what reality is and you learn how to deal with society at-large. He missed that. He didn’t have life skills, didn’t have job skills.”

After hearing Harrell’s testimony, Judge Garrett D. Page sentenced Adams, a Philadelphia man who robbed the TD Bank branch in Montgomery Township of about $6,700 in February 2014, to jail time but also ordered that he be paroled to the special re-entry program to help him transition back to society.

It was only the second time that public defenders have proposed TCRC as a sentencing tool. After hearing Harrell’s enlightening testimony, I suspect defenders may propose TCRC in the future for other clients. Credit must go to De Simone for bringing the unique program to the attention of the judge.

During the last several years, as criminal justice-related issues like mass incarceration and police and sentencing practices were discussed nationwide, the public defender’s office launched several initiatives aimed at improving indigent defense services and with a client-centered advocacy philosophy. Those initiatives have included holding expungement clinics and hiring its first social worker who helps defenders identify specific individualized rehabilitative options for clients during the court process.

“I hope for the best for Mr. Adams. I hope he sticks with the program and figures out how to live in society,” De Simone said after the judge ordered that Adams be paroled to the special re-entry program.
J. Jondhi Harrell (l) with Montco Assitant Public Defender Alexander De Simone/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Harrell said the organization has assisted 640 people since its inception in 2012 and currently is assisting 230 people.
“We have a small staff of about 4 to 5 people. But how we really do our work is through our volunteer staff. We have about 25 to 30 volunteers who represent a wide range of services. We have retired social workers, psychologists and counselors and mentors and they devote their time and energy because they believe in the mission and they believe in the philosophy,” Harrell said.

For more information about TCRC or to inquire about becoming a volunteer check out the organization’s website at

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Twin Trouble for Photographers

Want to throw a bunch of photographers and videographers covering a high-profile criminal case into an angry tizzy – just have the defendant’s twin step into public view first.
That’s exactly what happened Monday as a swarm of media from all over the state was camped out on the third floor of the courthouse waiting for Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane to arrive for her preliminary hearing on charges she allegedly leaked grand jury information and lied about it under oath.
Members of the media waited behind a roped off area, poised to attack with their cameras at the first Kane sighting.

But as the elevator doors opened it was Kane’s twin, Ellen Granahan Goffer, who stepped off first, wearing a black jacket, her hair swept up in a bun, sunglasses resting on her head. Immediately, camera men and women began clicking and recording as Goffer walked the narrow runway, set up by security, between the elevators and the courtroom entrance. (All that was missing, by the way, was a red carpet).

Media members didn’t realize they were following Kane’s twin until it was way too late.
Members of Kane’s security detail were behind Goffer, and Kane, wearing a bright reddish orange dress, followed them. But all cameras were still on Goffer, a chief deputy state attorney general in Kane’s office, and Kane was able to slip into the courtroom virtually unnoticed by camera-people. There was only about 15 to 20 feet between the elevator and the courtroom door.

My colleague at the Times Herald, Dan Clark caught the dramatic moment on his cell phone video camera. Take a look:Video

Photographers scrambled when they realized their mistake but to no avail, they still came up empty handed in the photo department.

Oops. For the experienced, professional photographers used to being in the trenches, it definitely stung. Imagine those anxious calls to television station and newspaper editors telling them you only captured the twin.

Media members groused throughout the day that they were only able to snap Kane’s twin and that they had to remain until the preliminary hearing ended to get the money shot of Kane as she left the hearing. To add to their annoyance, that hearing went on for more than four hours. Here's video of Kane leaving: Video2

During the wait, I heard a lot of banter about the twin escapade, everyone debating whether it was a deliberate tactic by Kane’s defense team.
“Yeah, I got enough pictures of her sister,” one photographer said loudly to a colleague, eliciting laughter from everyone camped out in the hallway.
Kane and sister The Mercury front page

I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy. But I have to say even though the sisters look alike, they were dressed differently and wore their hair differently (Kane wore her long locks down over her shoulders, like she traditionally does) and Kane, wearing that bright, reddish orange dress certainly did stand out in the crowd. Kane certainly didn't appear to be trying to fade into the background.

How could they have missed her?

Have to admit even though it stung my counterparts in the news business that sister act was one dramatic, entertaining moment that will be remembered for a long time.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Oyeh, Oyeh, Oyeh, Montco Judicial Assignments Finalized

As the court criers say each day, “Oyeh, Oyeh, Oyeh,
All manner of persons having business to come before the honorable judges of the Court of Common Pleas, in and for the County of Montgomery here holden this day, let them come forth and appear and they shall be heard. God save the Commonwealth and the honorable court.”

Everyone at the courthouse was buzzing this week about the upcoming business of the court as the new judicial assignments for the period Jan. 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 apparently were finalized.
This is the roster, according to what I am hearing:

CRIMINAL COURT (There will be eight assigned judges): President Judge William J. Furber Jr., who will also preside over Veteran’s Treatment Court; Judge William R. Carpenter; Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who will act as administrative judge and also preside over Drug Treatment Court; Judge Thomas P. Rogers; Judge Garrett D. Page; Judge Gary S. Silow, who will also preside over Behavioral Health Court; Judge Gail A. Weilheimer; and a new judge to be elected in November.

CIVIL COURT (There will be five assigned judges): Judge Thomas M. DelRicci, who will be administrative judge; Judge Thomas C. Branca; Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio; Judge Richard P. Haaz; and Judge Steven C. Tolliver.

FAMILY COURT (There will be six assigned judges): Judge Rhonda Lee Daniele; Judge R. Stephen Barrett; Judge Kelly C. Wall, who will be administrative judge; Judge Patricia E. Coonahan; and two of the new judges to be elected in November.

JUVENILE COURT: Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy, who will also be administrative judge.

ORPHANS’ COURT (There will be two assigned judges): Judge Lois E. Murphy, who will be administrative judge; and Judge Cheryl L. Austin.

A list of the judicial assignments that I saw did not include who will be handling the county’s DUI Court during that period. Stay tuned, I will let you know as soon as I hear the details.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sentencing Day Doesn't Always Mean 'Go Directly to Jail'

On Aug. 12, when convicted Abington burglar Phillip Scott Leopold, 35, showed up in Montgomery County Court to be sentenced in connection with a May 2014 break-in at the home of a neighbor, Judge Wendy-Demchick Alloy refused his request to report to jail at a later date.

Leopold, who pleaded guilty to charges in May and was free on bail while awaiting sentencing, claimed he needed time to properly say good-bye to relatives.

Huh? Did I hear that right?

Leopold’s parents were in the courtroom and they could have told other relatives about Leopold’s plight.

In the end, I believe the judge got it right.

Montco Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy/Mercury file Photo

“You’ve had enough time to say good-bye to your family members. You should have attempted that before you got here,” Demchick-Alloy told Leopold, ordering him to immediately begin serving the six to 23 month sentence.

But sentencing day in Montgomery County Court doesn’t always mean a defendant who is sentenced to jail is going directly to jail that day. Time and time again I see judges grant defense requests to allow those sentenced to jail to report days, sometimes weeks later.

It’s like acquiring a “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD” for a bit longer. But this isn’t a game of Monopoly.

Defense lawyers will often claim a defendant needs extra time to make “arrangements” at home for things such as child care or to get “their affairs in order” regarding finances, etc., and seek delayed reporting dates.

Doesn’t that amount to justice by appointment?

The way I see it, defendants have been free on bail for months since their trial convictions or guilty pleas and that time should have been used to make those “arrangements.” They know that jail is a possibility when they show up to be sentenced so shouldn’t they already be prepared to begin paying their debts to society?
And why wouldn’t a defendant just want to get the time behind bars over with? Why would they want to let impending jail time hang over their heads for a few more days or weeks?

Often, victims, who have been waiting months or years for justice, come to court to witness judgment day and only see it delayed a bit longer when a defendant doesn’t have to report to jail immediately.

Personally, I think defendants awaiting sentencing need to start bringing their toothbrushes with them when they come to court so they're prepared for the immediate trip to jail if a judge determines time behind bars is warranted.

Don’t get me wrong, delayed reporting dates might be appropriate if a judge is granting an offender immediate work release as part of a sentence. Turns out it can take a few days for jail officials to work out those schedules with an offender’s employer. So the offender doesn’t lose their job, a delayed report date might be necessary. I understand that.

Likewise, I understood when Judge William R. Carpenter gave a pregnant Main Line mother of two several  days to report to jail after she admitted that her reckless conduct while driving caused the death of a Conshohocken man during a two-vehicle crash in Lower Merion. Carpenter allowed Meredith Williams-Earle, 32, who is expecting her third child in December, a few days to report to jail, after she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, so she could attend a previously scheduled appointment with her obstetrician.

But throughout my years of reporting on the courts I have seen most criminal court judges grant delays in reporting dates in some cases that don’t involve work release sentences. Here are some recent examples:

Earlier this month, Judge Garrett D. Page sentenced Jessica Streeper, 34, a former eighth-grade teacher at a Norristown school, to nine to 23 months in jail for having sex with a 14-year-old male student. Defense lawyer Marc Neff asked the judge to give Streeper about a month to report to jail so she could be home with her children until school begins.
Assistant District Attorney Sophia Polites adamantly opposed the request arguing, “Today was sentencing day” and Streeper should go directly to jail.
Montco Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

But Judge Page decided to give Streeper, of Buckingham Township, Bucks County, one week, to report to jail and she walked out of court free to be with her husband and children for another week.

On Aug. 11, Judge Thomas P. Rogers sentenced Dylan A. Bruner, 29, of Horsham, to 11 ½ to 23 months in jail in connection with a 10:13 p.m. July 10, 2014, two-vehicle crash in the 800 block of Welsh Road in Horsham that killed Maureen Chapman, 69, of New Britain Township. Rogers gave Bruner until Aug. 24 to surrender to jailers.
Dylan Bruner/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

The list goes on. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but personally, I think that’s a list that should not keep getting longer.