Altoona magisterial district judge candidates face off

Police lieutenant, attorney field questions at forum

The two candidates vying for the magisterial district judge in Altoona now held by District Judge Todd Kelly fielded questions at a candidates’ forum Monday night that focused on drug and alcohol issues.

Altoona police Lt. Ben Jones and attorney Meghan Farrell Irwin, who beat out a crowded slate of candidates in the spring primary to secure slots on the November ballot, were each given a chance to speak and answer questions that hit on underage drinking, DUIs, marijuana decriminalization and court procedure during the forum at the Devorris Downtown Center that was sponsored by Blair County Drug & Alcohol Partnership’s Committee to Prevent DUI and Underage Drinking and the Penn State Altoona Office of Student Conduct.

Jones edged out fellow party member Irwin in the spring Republican primary, and Irwin secured her place on the fall ballot by topping the Democratic ballot, both continuing with the themes of their respective campaigns from that election.

Jones pointed to his experience as an Altoona police officer over the past 20 years, and Irwin touted her law degree and courtroom experience. Each was given a chance to respond to seven questions — five prepared by the organizers and two from the audience.

The magisterial district judge is the only judicial office that does not require a law degree and Irwin twice pointed out her education, having spent three years at a top 25 law school, as superior to the qualifications set for non-attorneys like Jones, who this summer successfully completed at his own expense the 160-hour certification in Harrisburg.

Jones said he was proud of his service as a police officer and pointed out a long tradition of former officers sitting on the bench in Altoona District Courts, including magisterial District Judge Kelly, whose seat one of the two candidates will fill.

One trending topic broached Monday night was marijuana decriminalization, with moderator Donna Gority asking the candidates their positions if Altoona adopted an ordinance making possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession or use of drug paraphernalia only a summary offense as opposed to a misdemeanor, such as the case in State College.

Irwin said she supported reducing these charges for first offenders if they would be held accountable with a fine and drug and alcohol evaluation, and if it meant resolving matters at the magisterial district judge level and helped to unburdened the backlog of cases in Blair County Courts.

“If I can resolve these cases and do my part at the lower level, I would support those initiatives,” Irwin told the small audience who turned out for the forum.

Jones admitted he had “grave reservations’ about decriminalizing marijuana, although he admitted he was in the minority on the topic. Jones said he still sees marijuana as a gateway drug, citing he’s never talked to a heroin or crack addict who had not used marijuana at some point in their life.

He pointed out that the State College ordinance gives police officers the option to issue a summary citation or charge a misdemeanor.

“As long as it doesn’t take that option away from the officers who are there and can see the circumstances of those situations,” Jones said of such an ordinance. Jones also noted that first offenders now can enter into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Dispositon Program, which allows for expungement and has the same effect as if it were a summary.

When it came to underage drinking, both candidates said they support the current Minors Diversionary Program for first offenders that makes those charged accountable while giving them an opportunity to have their record expunged and the citation waived and dismissed as long as they complete a six-hour course, pay court costs and complete other requirements within a 90-day time frame.

Jones said he likes the program because it gives district judges a rare chance to speak to the minors about the consequences of underage drinking and even share personal observations or stories to help them make better decisions in the future and understand the ramifications should they be arrested again.

Jones stressed that there are consequences to underage drinking beyond a DUI or arrest, such as sexual assaults, fatal crashes and overall poor decisions.

Both candidates agreed drinking is too often seen as a rite of passage by many, and Irwin said that because many people don’t realize the penalties or consequences of things like underage drinking before they commit an offense, the program is a great chance to “scare” them a bit so going forward they will make better decisions about drinking.

Irwin and Jones also agreed that people furnishing alcohol to minors have to be held responsible, with Irwin saying she does think consideration has to be given to the circumstances. For parents supplying a high school party, she has “zero tolerance,” while a 21-year-old having a party with 20-year-old friends would not be as egregious an offense.

Jones pointed out that parents supplying alcohol does a disservice to the child, both in reinforcing a mentality that one doesn’t have to abide by the law as well as ignoring the negative consequences of underage drinking.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.