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Commissioners hear public comment on county’s justice system

During public comment at the Lehigh County Commissioner’s meeting May 26, Attorney Ettore “Ed” Angelo said he wants to “continue to pound away at the Lehigh County’s system of justice.”

Angelo is a frequent attendee at commissioner meetings and generally speaks to what he sees as justice inequities in the legal system.

“The legal system is like the Titanic,” Angelo said. “You need to turn it around, but you can’t turn a large ship on a dime ... we have to start trying to turn it around now.

“The numbers continue to astound me. I’m no good at math,” Angelo said. “But add up the budget of the police department, the courts and the corrections department, not including the various municipalities, you come up with about $110 million that gets spent annually.

“Every blessed year we spend that kind of money. If you divide the approximately 5,000 people who come in contact with the criminal justice system [with that number] it comes out to $22,000 per person. It’s a depressing number, it’s an astounding number, it’s an appalling number.”

Angelo cited what he called a study from the State of Illinois that showed “every time someone recidivates back into jail or prison, it costs society $151,000. Again, another astounding number. We’ve got to turn things around.

“We have a 50-percent recidivism rate over three years in Lehigh County,” Angelo said.

He said Michigan state prisons have it down to 24 percent and Texas has reduced theirs by 14 percent.

“We have to turn things around,” Angelo said. “That’s a 50-percent failure rate. What business could withstand that kind of failure rate?

“This isn’t new. Of course, we are in an era where there have [been] great changes … across the nation, but we’re not doing well locally, nationally, nor in the state. There are examples to show that we can do better.

“The re-entry program needs to be subjected to rigorous standards of success. These are available.”

He said there is a vast difference between the way it is being done and the way it could be done.

“I’m not here to insult the corrections director nor anyone in corrections. I’m here to spur them on to improvement. I don’t see the effort. I certainly don’t see the evidence of effort. To simply stand by and abide by that failure [rate] is a failure of morality.

“As a defense attorney,” Angelo said, “I see it as my duty to try to make the defense system healthier. That is my duty. I suggest, I insist that is your duty as well.

“To ignore the abject failure of this system right now is a combination of malfeasance [intentional] and misfeasance [by accident]. If it is not addressed, where is the moral breakdown? I toss the gauntlet to you.

“I think this board is justice-minded. I think you all want to see success. You all want to see people do better. Think of it as, ‘That’s my kid in that jail, because it’s somebody’s kid.’”

In a separate interview with The Press, Angelo said all jails can be considered to be privatized in the sense that “everybody is dipping their feet into the money that all comes from criminal defendants.

“If the taxpayers knew, they would rebel because, generally, poor people – 80 to 90 percent, the working poor people – pay for the system.

“They wind up in the system because they are poor,” Angelo said. “The system makes them more poor.”

He said about 4.3 million people are on parole at any given time and about 2.2 to 2.3 million people are incarcerated, “under carceral control,” in the United States at any given time.

Angelo said Lehigh County’s re-entry (transfer from jail back to society) program has been shut down due to the pandemic. “Why isn’t it digital?

“When will the work release program resume?”

He said the work release program was suspended because of the pandemic.

Another problem with early-release or parole is the fact the person must have an address to get on the program, however, many do not have addresses.

One solution to this problem, according to Angelo, is to use the currently unused Community Correction Center or “Salisbury Annex” to house people who are out on parole or work release programs.

“We need a re-entry director.

“Every time we bring it up, we don’t get an answer,” Angelo said.

A call to the Lehigh County Director of Corrections soliciting comment was not returned.

“We have a 50-percent recidivism rate over three years in Lehigh County,” Ettore “Ed” Angelo said. “To ignore the abject failure of this system right now is a combination of malfeasance and misfeasance.” PRESS PHOTO COURTESY of ETTORE ANGELO