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BENNINGHOFF: Addressing Crime and Violence Through Smart Justice

Rising crime rates, led by spikes in violent crime, have been ravaging Pennsylvania’s major cities and are now spilling over into suburban and rural communities.

As we have continued to witness tragic news story after tragic news story of young lives ended too soon or businesses being forced to close or relocate due to preventable incidents of crime, the members of the House Republican Caucus have been working to respond with smart legislation designed to marshal state and local resources to keep Pennsylvanians safe and ensure criminals are off our streets.

Our efforts began in earnest at the beginning of the year with a package of “smart justice” bills that were aimed at providing state and local officials with more tools to combat increasing gun violence while also giving crime victims greater ability to exercise the rights afforded to them.

That first bill, House Bill 2275, would supercharge the Attorney General’s Gun Violence Task Force to help crack down on illegal gun crimes in Philadelphia, a place where shooting incidents and victims of gun crime have continued to increase over last year’s historic numbers. That legislation passed the House in April of this year.

Along those same lines, House Bill 2464, which was signed into law as Act 77 of 2022 in July, established standing for victims of crime to seek enforcement of the rights that have already been afforded to them in law. This law stops crime victims from being reliant on third parties to stand up for their protection and allows them to know the protections afforded to them by current law will be enforced.

As part of a truly historic budget passed in the beginning of July, House Republicans ensured providing tools to state and local law enforcement to keep Pennsylvanians safe was at the forefront of our discussions.

That budget secured $7.6 million for a joint local-state task force to focus on prosecuting illegal gun crimes and straw purchases of firearms in Philadelphia.

We included enough funding to hire to the Pennsylvania State Police to hire 200 additional State Troopers to help keep Pennsylvania’s communities safe, to provide the State Police with the latest law enforcement technology, and bolster their operation of the Pennsylvania gun background check system – one of the most comprehensive background check systems in the nation.

The budget set aside $75 million in one-time federal funds to supplement $30 million in state funding to community violence intervention and prevention initiatives. That is in addition to $1.7 million allocated for municipal police training and $50 million in federal funds to provide gun violence investigation and prosecution grants.

We also put an incredible amount of resources into getting at the root causes of crime and violence by allocating $135 million in federal relief funding for a collaborative care mental health initiative and efforts to keep our schools safe by including $100 million for school safety and security.

Contemporaneously with the passage of the budget earlier this summer, the House also took the historic step of forming the House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order, which is a bipartisan committee designed to take a comprehensive look at the historic crime and violence in Philadelphia and help determine what solutions are available to ensure our laws are enforced and Pennsylvanians are kept safe.

As we reach the final days of our 2021-22 legislative session, we are continuing to run through the finish line on stopping crime and violence and working to keep Pennsylvanians safe.

Just this past week, the General Assembly concluded work on legislation sponsored by Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Lawrence) on a bill called “Markie’s Law.” This bill, named after Mark “Markie” Mason—an 8-year-old who was stabbed to death by a man paroled before the end of his sentence for violent crime—will postpone consideration of a violent inmate’s parole for two years following their minimum release date.

This legislation, awaiting Gov. Wolf’s signature, will keep children and other Pennsylvanians safe from criminals convicted of violent crimes by ensuring they stay where they belong: behind bars.

While crime and violence continue to persist, reversing the trend of out-of-control crime by providing state resources, passing tough-on-crime legislation, and using legislative authority to hold local officials accountable has been a priority of House Republicans over the last two years.

As we reach our remaining session days, we will continue to rise to the occasion to do what we can to keep Pennsylvanians safe and protect victims of crime.

 

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DelVal Suburbs Dump on Philly’s Mask Mandate

Philadelphia is not getting any brotherly love from its Delaware Valley neighbors over its decision to bring back its COVID-19 indoor mask mandate.

“Bucks County has not, at any point during the pandemic, implemented a community mask mandate and has no plans going forward to do so,” James O’Malley, Bucks County Deputy Director of Communications told Delaware Valley Journal.

The Philadelphia Health Department announced Monday it will require masks indoors at offices, shops, restaurants, and some outdoor public spaces beginning April 18. The decision comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, while still low, have crept past the Philadelphia City Council’s benchmark system established earlier this year.

The collar counties surrounding the city will not be joining in.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Chester County government’s position has been that the decision to wear a mask is personal,” said Public Information Officer Rebecca Brain. “Likewise, the decision of a business or organization to require a mask of their customers or employees is personal, and not something that should be regulated by the county.”

Their language echoes Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Disease, who said Sunday, “We’re going to see that each individual is going to have to make their calculation of the amount of risk that they want to take in going to indoor dinners and in going to functions.”

O’Malley acknowledged the Bucks County Health Department tracks local data and consults with nearby hospitals to create mitigation recommendations but expects caseloads to rise and fall over time without the need for a mask mandate.

“I think at this point, with hospitalizations still very low and a high number of people having been vaccinated, we need to pivot away from mandates,” said Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, (R-Harleysville). “We have had two years of education on this disease and people need to make their own risk assessment and decide for themselves if they are going to get vaccinated and/or wear a mask. We also need to recognize that basic cloth masks that most individuals have are not nearly as protective as higher grade N95 masks anyway, so the effectiveness of a mask mandate would be limited at best.”

Across the river in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) concurred. “I’d be shocked if we put a mandate like that in place in New Jersey,” he said Monday.

And the opposition isn’t just in the suburbs. Philadelphia Councilmember Allan Domb (D-At-Large) told DVJournal he thinks the city is making a mistake.

“I’m listening to the CDC,” Domb said. “I’m listening to Dr. Fauci, who said masking is a decision that should be left up to the individual. I’m listening to Children’s Hospital.”

PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said Friday, “Our team advises against required masking.”

Domb fears the mask mandate will be a blow to the city’s economy just as recovery is beginning.

“It could really set back our local economy. Philadelphia is just one city. It’s one thing if the entire country does it, but they aren’t. The suburbs aren’t doing it, either. This just hurts our small businesses.”

Domb also noted that while Philadelphia’s case rate is higher than the nearby suburbs, it’s far lower than New York City and Washington, D.C., and even lower than Baltimore.

The 7-day average caseload per 100,000, according to New York Times data, in Philadelphia (170) is significantly above that of surrounding counties, including Montgomery (84), Delaware (50), Chester (54), and Bucks (45). That metric, among others, leaves some counties hedging their bets.

Critics of reinstating mask mandates, however, point to hospitalization rates. While Philadelphia has seen a spike in the daily average of positive tests over the past two weeks, up 74 percent, the hospitalization number is down over that same period by 21 percent.

Delaware and Montgomery County officials note their communities are not currently at risk using CDC metrics, but they won’t rule out the need for future mask mandates.

“The Delaware County Health Department (DCHD) is monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic data to identify trends that may require public health community measures such as indoor masking,” the county said in a statement. “Currently, per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Delaware County’s community-level remains low. Therefore, an indoor mask requirement in Delaware County is not yet necessary.”

Montgomery County Public Health Administrator Christina Miller also noted the county’s “low” status, while still suggesting some people may choose to mask for the next few weeks.

“In light of the slight uptick in cases we are seeing across the Northeast, and the uptick in cases that we saw at this time last year following spring break, individuals––particularly those at higher risk for severe COVID––might consider masking up this week and the next few weeks to protect themselves and their community,” Miller said.

Domb also supports a mask recommendation, not a requirement.

“They’re talking about removing the mask mandate for airline travel the same day Philadelphia goes back to masking,” Domb observed. “I wish they would reconsider.”

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Philly issues Vax Mandate as DelVal COVID Cases and Hospitalizations Rise

COVID-19 cases are rising in the Delaware Valley and in January the City of Philadelphia will require people to show proof of vaccination to eat at restaurants indoors or go inside sports and entertainment venues.

Cases are rising despite the widespread availability of vaccines, which state and county officials encourage residents to receive.  And the state Department of Health confirmed after following the approval process by the federal government last week, that 16- and 17-year-olds in Pennsylvania are now eligible for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. The booster is only approved after six months of completing the primary Pfizer vaccination.

Those who are 16 and 17 years old are only eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine, while anyone 18 years and older may receive any vaccine regardless of which vaccine they originally received.

“It is great news to see booster eligibility expanded and we know providers are ready to offer more protection for Pennsylvanians,” Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said while visiting the community COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Gettysburg College recently. “The Department of Health urges all eligible Pennsylvanians who have yet to get vaccinated to do so immediately and for those people who are eligible to receive a booster shot to get that added level of protection as soon as possible.”

Pennsylvania vaccine providers, including federally qualified health centers, pediatricians, pharmacies, and primary care physicians can schedule booster shots and are ready to administer booster appointments quickly.

Johnson emphasized the importance of vaccines for those eligible, including those 5 to 11 years old.

“The pediatric vaccine is safe, and it is highly effective at protecting children against COVID-19-related illness, hospitalization, and death. I am impressed by the tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who are stepping up every day to get their first, second, or third dose of vaccine to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors against COVID-19,” Johnson said. “That’s why the COVID-19 vaccines are our best protection against the virus.”

Cases continue to rise in Montgomery County, which happened last year with the onset of colder weather and people sending more time indoors. However, the overall approximate numbers in Montgomery County are still significantly lower than the same time last year.

“For the second half of November 2020, the daily rate went from 250 to 325, with a peak of 350 around Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Richard Lorraine, Medical Director for the Montgomery County Office of Public Health. “This year, the same time period ranged from 180 to 240 with a peak of 260 again around Thanksgiving.”

While case numbers seem to have plateaued, there is now a seasonal increase as expected. The rate of increase is still relatively slow, and the total number of cases is noticeably lower than last year. While that is always subject to change, the decrease in the overall amplitude may be reflective of the increased population immunity due to vaccination and natural immunity.

As this cycle continues over time, Lorraine is optimistic that Montgomery County will eventually be able to make the shift from pandemic to endemic.

“Thus far, preliminary data seems to indicate that the omicron variant may be somewhat more contagious than previous strains, but it seems to be causing milder illness overall,” Lorraine said. “If this trend continues, it might indicate that we will see a more severe cold season for the winter, but hopefully not as much impact on overall COVID hospitalizations and deaths which is why we will continue to monitor the data.”

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DA Krasner Shows He’s in ‘Another World,’ Claiming No Crime Crisis in Philly

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said at a Monday press conference that the city is not in a crime crisis and people should not be fearful. The comments, which came days after Philadelphia broke its all-time murder record, have sparked heated condemnation, especially from prominent black Philadelphians.

During a back-and-forth with reporters about the city’s crime level, Krasner said, “There is not a big spike in crime. That is not true. There is also not a big spike in violent crime, either.”

Krasner noted that, according to police statistics, crimes falling into the “violent” category are down 3 percent compared to 2020 even while gun violence is up.

“It is actually striking that gun violence is so high,” Krasner said. “And yet, we don’t see violence as a general category that includes it going so high. We see it remaining at relatively normal levels, actually going down last year in many areas.”

However, after several days of negative press, Krasner sought to walk back his earlier comments and issued a statement Thursday, in part blaming the media for the kerfuffle.

“I know that some inarticulate things I said earlier this week have offended people,” said Krasner. “The message conveyed through media sound bites is not at all what I meant. Complete answers based on data aimed at solutions to gun violence will be edited down to sound bites. It’s my job to make sure even those sound bites are careful. As someone whose strong support is owed in part to the fact that I don’t communicate or make decisions like a career politician, it is my obligation to do better.”

A review of the police data does show rapes are down by 11 percent and assaults are down by 7 percent. FBI data reveals those drops to be the continuation of a years-long downward trend — rape has declined since 2013 and assault has head downward since 2018 after being flat since 2014.

Police data show, on the other hand, that murders are up 13 percent compared to this time last year, and robberies involving guns are up about 24 percent — both continuing notable spikes in recent years. Meanwhile, data from the DA’s office does not show a corresponding increase in prosecutions or convictions in either category.

In fact, the total number of cases in all categories dismissed or withdrawn by the DA’s office has spiked from 50 percent in 2015 to 73 percent this year, meaning nearly three out of four cases handled by Krasner’s office are not fully prosecuted.

This trend is even more pronounced when looking at violent crimes. Dismissed or withdrawn homicide cases have nearly tripled compared to 2015. Dismissed or withdrawn non-fatal shooting cases have sextupled compared to 2015. And dismissed or withdrawn gun robbery case data reveal a downward cliff in prosecution since Krasner took office.

Total gun robbery cases handled by the DA’s office have dropped 50 percent, from the 700s in 2015 to 2018 to a mere 366 this year. Of this total, the number of dismissed or withdrawn gun robbery cases has only dropped 19 percent compared to 2015. Meaning, while fewer cases are handled a higher percentage of those fewer cases end up not fully prosecuted.

Yet, Krasner has stood firm against mounting accusations that the city is letting criminals go free, including by one man who went on a 26-day hunger strike to protest what he sees as a government that has “given up.”

“We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness,” Krasner said.

But some people from the suburbs are reluctant to chance shopping, going out to eat or to the theater in the city nowadays. Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale and Republican candidate for governor, says the violence is keeping people from visiting the city.

“Philadelphia’s culture of violence is certainly deterring people from flowing into the city,” said Gale. “Suburban families and tourists have little interest in becoming a statistic.”

Gail Hardie Ford,  who lives in Upper Providence, told Delaware Valley Journal, “I worked in the city for years. Between violence and draconian Covid mandates, I no longer wish to visit.”

Lynn Brown, a Cheltenham resident, was planning to go shopping at the Christmas Village in Love Park this weekend but after hearing reports about increasing crime she is uncertain.

“I still haven’t made up my mind,” said Brown. “I want to but somebody else at work said something (about the crime). I’m still on the fence.”

“DA Larry Krasner is living in another world if he thinks that after a record 521 homicides this year, people should feel safe in Philadelphia,” said Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, an association of businesses in West Philadelphia.

“Businesses in high crime neighborhoods typically shut down before nightfall, foregoing thousands of dollars in daily revenue because of crime. It also affects businesses being able to hire, especially those that rely on a younger workforce, because they have trouble convincing parents of young people that it’s safe to work there.”

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter wrote an editorial for The Philadelphia Inquirer also condemning Krasner’s comments.

“I have to wonder what kind of messed up world of White wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive district attorney.”

Krasner noted during the Monday press conference that his office is actively pursuing so-called “straw purchases” of guns to combat the rise of gun violence.

“It’s people who are able to buy guns legally purchasing those guns and then turning around and selling them to those who cannot buy them, to people who have felonies or who otherwise are not permitted,” he said.

This focus on guns seems to be supported by other city and state Democratic leaders.

Gov. Tom Wolf recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed citizens who want to legally carry a gun to do so without seeking government approval first.

“I support many public policy proposals that would help solve this urgent issue [gun violence], including safe storage legislation, extreme risk protection orders, enhanced reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns, and closing gaps in the background check system,” Wolf said in a news release on the veto.

On Nov. 24, the day the city hit 500 murders, Mayor Jim Kenney put much of the blame on the state General Assembly for not allowing the city to pass its own gun control legislation.

“There are people making money selling these guns, making these guns and the legislature, not the people behind me, don’t care,” Kenney said. “They don’t care how many people get killed.”

But Jason Gottesman, press secretary to the Republican state House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, disagrees with that accusation.

“While the Philadelphia Mayor and District Attorney claim the state has not provided the tools necessary to enforce firearm violations and illegal sales in the city, the opposite has been true and Act 58 of 2019 is a perfect example of the work we have done,” Gottesman said in an email announcing an effort by Rep. Martina White (R – Philadelphia) and Craig Williams (R- Delaware/Chester) to reauthorize that act.

Act 58 gave the state Attorney General the authority to prosecute gun law violations, including illegal sales and straw purchases in Philadelphia.

“This move was necessary because it was clear that the District Attorney and Mayor of Philadelphia have no interest in prosecuting gun crimes,” said Gottesman.

 

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