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 www.tcrcphilly.org

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. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Judge Keeps a Promise

Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page traveled to Tulpehocken Township, Berks County, on July 31 to attend the graduation ceremony at the Teen Challenge Training Center, a faith-based, residential substance abuse rehabilitation program.
Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Specifically, Page went to see Michael Thomas, 50, a former Bridgeport man, graduate from the program to which he had paroled him on April 14, 2014.

“It was a 14-month intensive program. It’s no playground. It’s a faith-based solution for the adult drug epidemic,” Page explained.

When Page sentenced Thomas for a probation violation and paroled him directly to the Teen Challenge program in April 2014, he said, “I may be seeing you at Teen Challenge. Maybe I’ll pay a visit. I would recommend that the district attorney’s office get familiar with this program. I may even go there and visit them.”

Kudos to Page for keeping his promise.

Page believed Thomas’ graduation would be the perfect time to visit the training center, which despite its name does not just offer programs for teens. Page visited the program and attended the graduation on his own time.

Thomas, Page said, received an award for being “the most improved graduate” and was presented with a large wooden cross as he left the graduation podium.

“It was moving,” Page said about the ceremony, adding Thomas embraced him when he caught up with him after the graduation. “It was very emotional. This experience was nothing but positive energy.”
Cross awarded to Michael Thomas/Photo courtesy Judge Garrett Page

The judge said he was pleased to have made a difference in the life of someone who once stood before him to be punished for his crimes.

“Judges can make a difference,” Page said. “This was important for me as well as him, to educate me (about the program).”

Page grew up in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1970s, an area then frequented by gangs and an area he often describes as “the hood” when he addresses defendants who come before him in court.

“A number of my friends were shot, killed. Back in the 70s the gangs were big,” Page told me in April as he prepared to speak at the Peacemakers Pottstown Youth Violence Prevention Summit, adding his mother, a home and school coordinator, and his father, a postal worker and community activist for safe streets, “kept us away from that” and ingrained in him a spirit of nonviolence. “I want (defendants) to know that I’ve been in the middle of it. I’m a survivor. Maybe that can give them some hope.”

In October 2013, Thomas was sentenced to 11 ½ to 23 months in the county jail, to be followed by three years’ probation, after he pleaded guilty to a criminal trespass charge stemming from an incident in Norristown, according to court records. Thomas was back in court on April 14, 2014, in front of Page for violating his sentence, according to court records.

At the April 14 violation hearing, Thomas’ lawyer told Page that Thomas used pot since he was 11 or 12 and admitted to having a cocaine problem. An evaluation, according to testimony, showed Thomas had a dysfunctional childhood, escaped through drugs and alcohol and committed crimes related to his drug abuse.

“Your honor, I think we all too often see in these courtrooms the tragic tendency that underlies a lot of criminal behavior, and that is drug addiction and the power of drug addiction,” defense lawyer William Weiss said at that time. “I think that Mr. Thomas recognizes that about himself and that he has had that drip over his life, unfortunately, for far too long.”

Weiss told Page at that time that Thomas, who admitted to violating his previous sentence, didn’t want to be paroled directly to the streets but rather wanted to be paroled into a treatment program where he could get help. Page gave Thomas credit for the year he had been in jail awaiting sentencing for the violation and ordered that he couldn’t be released until a bed was ready for him at Teen Challenge.

“I witnessed your demeanor on the stand. I do believe that you are possibly on the right track,” Page told Thomas.
Page also ordered Thomas to complete two years’ probation after he’s paroled from the 14-month Teen Challenge program.
“So do what you have to do to get through this thicket called life and get into this program and you prove to me, because I’m going to have probation on you after that,” Page told Thomas at the time. “If I hear you mess up, I’m going to mess you up.”

Montgomery County Judge Garrett D. Page/Photo by Hessler
Thomas told Page he has two grandkids.

“You’re young enough to be able to get involved with your grandkids and your children. Get involved with your own life, but after 14 months is over, I’m going to trust that you’ll make it through, this is lifetime. This is not 14 months,” Page told Thomas, telling him outpatient rehab must follow his Teen Challenge graduation. “And you need a safety net all around you.”

Page said he was impressed with the Teen Challenge program.

“A lot of people don’t know about it. I’m going to introduce it to our judges. I’m going to bring it up at a judicial meeting,” Page said. “Sometimes it’s a good thing to attend a graduation so you get the full flavor of where are we sending these defendants.” 

Friday, July 31, 2015


Gloria Woods, assistant supervisor for Court Clerks in Montgomery County, was beaming with pride this week after learning her daughter gave birth to a little girl, Hannah Leigh. 

It’s the first granddaughter for Woods, who also has two grandsons.

“She’s like my little princess. I waited for her for a long time,” said Woods, who previously worked as Judge Gary S. Silow’s court clerk.
Gloria Woods/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Woods was seen this week proudly sharing photographs of little Hannah to her co-workers, who gushed over the cute baby photos. I’ll say one thing, little Hannah couldn’t want for a nicer “Nana.”

Hannah Leigh was born at 2:21 p.m. July 29 to the proud parents of Ashley and Sean Konzman and weighed 7 lbs 2 oz. and was 19 ½ inches long, according to Woods.
Hannah Leigh Konzman/Photo courtesy of Gloria Woods

So if you see Woods around the courthouse congratulate her on being a proud new grandmother.


Congratulations also go out to Nancy McFarland, 78, of Lower Providence, who retired recently from the county Clerk of Courts Office where she had been employed since 2000.

“It’s been very interesting. I didn’t have any legal experience or working in a lawyer’s office. This was my first time working anywhere in the courthouse,” McFarland said on her last day on the job. “The people I worked with were great. There are a lot of young people and I enjoyed being in their company. I enjoyed working here.”
“The courthouse is not any easy place to work because there’s a lot of stress in what you do and in what you’re handling and a lot to learn all the time. It’s interesting work,” McFarland added. “I’m going to miss the people I worked with.”

McFarland was often the first voice members of the public heard if they called the clerk’s office because most recently she manned the phone lines and took all incoming calls.

“A lot of times people that called were already stressed out or angry about something so some of my calls you had to really work with them,” McFarland recalled.
McFarland previously served as an elected supervisor in Lower Providence for 20 years. From 1965 to 2000, McFarland worked in the small machine shop that she and her late husband owned.

Linda Sulock, McFarland’s supervisor, said McFarland was “always a fun person to work with.”
“She was very personable and was very accommodating to the clients no matter how disgruntled they might have been on the phone. And Nancy always had a way of making something a little less stressful by adding one of her own little comments that would break the ice and people wouldn’t be quite as upset as they were when they first called,” Sulock said.

McFarland was known for telling co-workers many stories about traveling and living in the Norristown area.
About her future plans, McFarland laughed, “Well next week I’m going to sleep until I want to get up or until the dog gives me a kiss.”
Seriously, McFarland, who has 17 grandchildren, added, “I want to do things I didn’t have time to do. When you work five days a week it doesn’t leave much time to do big projects so I would like to do some big projects. And I’m a flea market junkie. I did flea markets for 10 years and enjoyed them and I would like to see if I could get back to doing a little bit of that too.”

As we were speaking in a courthouse hallway, numerous passersby hugged her and shouted, “Nancy, I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Nancy replied, her voice quivering a bit with emotion.

Nancy, I wish you much happiness and enjoyment in your retirement.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wheels of Justice Spin for Charity

Congratulations go out to Montgomery County’s law enforcement community, riding with the district attorney’s “Wheels of Justice” team, who completed last Sunday’s annual 65-mile Irish Pub Tour De Shore charity ride, which honors police officers killed in the line of duty and benefits the children they left behind.

The team collectively raised more than $70,000 and won the John Timoney Award for the largest team and most fundraising.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele even geared up and joined the team’s 250 members, composed of law enforcement officials from within the ranks of Ferman's office as well as local police departments and sheriff’s deputies, for the 28th annual event.

“I rode. This year was grueling. It was the hottest day in memory for me riding Tour De Shore. The heat was crushing,” Ferman told me. “For most of the ride, I was not just drinking water but pouring water over my head as I rode. I doused myself with water and within a few moments it would be dry. It was just sweltering hot.”
GEARED UP Montco First Asst. DA Kevin Steele & DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo courtesy of Risa Ferman

Ferman completed the ride in just over five hours.
“Not too shabby in that heat for an old broad like me,” joked Ferman, who turned 50 this year.

The road trip, Ferman said, was also the most crowded she had ever seen. This year, more than 2,300 cyclists participated in the event.
“Sometimes the conditions on the roadway were not ideal. People were falling and getting injured. During the course of the ride we heard ambulances. Notwithstanding all of that, it was the best time that I ever had,” Ferman said.
READY TO GO! Montco DA Risa Vetri Ferman/Photo courtesy of Risa Ferman

“There is such a sense of camaraderie and fellowship at this event. We all ride on different teams and certainly there’s a great deal of competition among the teams in the buildup to the ride. But on the day of, we are truly one team united in support of our first responders who put their lives on the line for us every day,” Ferman added.

The bike ride from Philadelphia to Atlantic City benefits the Irish Pub Children's Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for Delaware Valley-based, children-oriented charitable endeavors. With record turnout the foundation surpassed its $800,000 fundraising goal for 2015. The Irish Pub Children’s Foundation has raised more than $5 million since its inception, according to officials.
AFTER THE RIDE A FAN CAME IN HANDY/Photo Courtesy of Risa Ferman

This marked the seventh year that the Wheels of Justice team participated in the event. To date, the team has helped raise more than $335,000 for the charity over the course of the seven years.

Wheels of Justice Team/Photo Courtesy of Risa Vetri Ferman
“I’m very proud to be from Montgomery County when we go down to Atlantic City for this ride. Montgomery County’s presence is very well known and visible,” Ferman said.

The Wheels of Justice team, along with its sister team, Team G-Riders, represent all facets of the Montgomery County criminal justice system, including the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, county Public Safety Department, local police departments and local defense lawyers, judges and friends and families of law enforcement.

“We ride in honor of many heroes, but the ride has taken on a very special meaning since Montgomery County lost Plymouth Township Police Officer Brad Fox in 2012,” Ferman said. “We ride in Brad’s memory in honor of our fallen hero and we ride to honor the service and sacrifice of all our first responders who put their lives on the line every single day so that the rest of us can be safe.”
Photo Courtesy of Risa Vetri Ferman

The event was created in 1987 when Cathy Burke and Mark O’Connor, owners of the Irish Pub, were looking for ways to give back to the community and bridge the gap between the Irish pubs in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

“Twenty-eight years ago, this ride started out with 20 riders and has now exceeded our wildest expectations,” said O’Connor, president of the Irish Pub Children’s Foundation. “What was once a casual ride of 20 has now become a can’t-miss Delaware Valley event every summer.”