Group seeks changes to justice system

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A group that wants to change the way the Blair County Court system addresses drug addiction, mental health and other issues distributed flyers outside the courthouse just prior to the start of criminal court proceedings on Friday.

“It’s about change, awareness, fairness … justice,” said Kenia White of Altoona, who is part of the new organization called Treating Others Equally.

She said the justice system should treat those in the system who need it.

If they are addicted or need mental health treatment, they should be treated for those situations, she explained.

The new group, she said, wants to be a voice for people who now have no voice.

Her mother, Rhonda White, also of Altoona, said she was outside the courthouse because, “I’m here for everybody.”

She said she has a son who has had experience with the justice system, but that’s not the reason she was handing out material to passers-by.

She said that the justice system seems to give long sentences to individuals who commit acts because of drug abuse or mental health issues but imposes short sentences on others who commit heinous crimes like child abuse.

White said she was born and raised in Altoona, but she believes the way the justice system handles certain issues is causing some young people to be fearful of law enforcement.

“I believe do time for the crime, but make it fair. Unfortunately some are getting sentences greater than others. I’m just trying to make a difference,” Rhonda White said.

She and her daughter were joined by Don McNeal, who said he is dedicated to helping those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“I’ve been dealing with this for 21 years. I’ve prayed on it,” he said, discussing why he was at the courthouse Friday.

He believes the citizens group has the responsibility to try to make people aware that maybe just locking up defendants is not the best way to address drug addiction or mental health issues.

McNeal said he is not looking to give those who run afoul of the justice system “a free pass,” but said he wants to see the system get to the root of why someone has broken the law and address those problems.

“It’s up to us not to let them down,” he said of the people in the system who can’t speak for themselves.

“We don’t want to be an organization focused only on legal issues. We want to look at human issues,” he said.

The flyer being distributed stated, “Our legal system stands for justice, but our trusted servants are doing injustice.”

“Help us change the wrong to right. Stop those who abuse their power,” it read.

Others at the protest included Kylie Gority of Altoona.

Jason Amrhein of Altoona, who took one of the flyers from the group, stood outside the courthouse front door reading it.

“I’m still learning about the group. Justice for one, justice for all,” he said.

One of the cases the group cited as unfair involved a situation in which a woman lost custody of her children, not because of anything she did, but because she was living with a man who abused her.

And, Rhonda White said, many people in the system are pleading guilty out of fear of getting a long prison sentence if they go to trial and lose.

Blair County court officials are not strangers to the arguments made Friday by the small protest group.

The president of the Blair County Chapter of the NAACP, Don Witherspoon, has met many times with local court officials to discuss a litany of similar issues.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.