HOLLIDAYSBURG - Ferguson, Mo., where racial turmoil has erupted over a police shooting, is many miles from Altoona, but according to local NAACP President Don Witherspoon, the issues in the justice systems in both communities are similar.
Witherspoon has for several years visited the Blair County Prison on a weekly basis and has established a rapport with many of the inmates.
Those inmates, mostly African-American, have recently responded by preparing petitions outlining their complaints about Blair County's justice system.
They express concern for long sentences imposed on African-American defendants, particularly those who have come from Baltimore and Philadelphia and have been convicted of major drug crimes.
The petitions say police focus on black males when it comes to traffic stops, and that defense attorneys work hand-in-hand with prosecutors, frightening them into agreeing to plea agreements in which they have to admit to crimes they did not commit.
The petitioners are critical of the way police cater to confidential informants, who are usually addicts caught dealing and who themselves face long jail terms if they don't cooperate with police.
Witherspoon said, "I am also unhappy with the justice system," noting that aside from the justice system, he is concerned there are no African-American firefighters, or enough African-American police officers, prison guards or workers in general in Blair County.
"We receive numerous complaints from prisoners regarding the disparity in sentencing, insufficient counsel, racial profiling, unlawful wiretapping, confidential informants, the Public Defender's Office, the Altoona Police Department and the West Drug Task Force," Witherspoon said.
"I realize all the allegations are not true, but we have to investigate and try to find solutions for the valid complaints," he said.
Time to reflect
Recently, a new group has emerged called Treating Others Equally.
One of the leaders of the group is Rhonda White of Altoona, who says of the justice system, "There are some issues, ongoing issues.
"Our biggest thing is fair sentencing," she said.
She has a concern "about locking people up for life who can be rehabilitated."
She said TOE, as the organization is known, wants to give a voice to inmates, like the 40-some who signed the various petitions, because they have little power to speak for themselves.
Blair County officials say they are not ignoring the arguments presented by Witherspoon and others.
District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio considers Witherspoon a friend and says he talks about these issues all the time with the longtime NAACP leader.
Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva said she has met with Witherspoon two or three times to review sentences and explain why a defendant might have been hit with a long term.
Kopriva is very concerned about the image of the justice system in the community. She wants residents to have confidence in it, and she said she has even suggested that a community forum be held to openly discuss the issues rather than to have them seethe in secret.
Witherspoon said she would support the idea of open discussion of the justice system. The judge, who has been in office for more than 25 years and has been instrumental in developing courts and many other special programs to help inmates, said she can see both sides of the story when it comes to the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., and the complaints expressed in Blair County.
Officer safety, she said, is an issue on one side of the Ferguson story. The complaints against the system are on the other side.
She said police officers most often treat people with dignity and don't see color.
However, there may be some who are biased, she explained.
She emphasized there is a need for police, a fact that must be recognized. A forum, she suggested, would help people work through the problems.
Because of what is happening in Missouri, this may be "a time for reflection," Kopriva said.
A national problem
The controversy surrounding the justice system and the tense relationship between African-Americans and police has its roots in a statistical anomaly showing African-Americans comprise almost half the nation's inmate population.
This is why Witherspoon says the problem is nationwide, with Blair County only reflective of the issue.
The NAACP says African-Americans are jailed at six times the rate of whites and that a million of the 2.3 million defendants behind bars are black.
The disparity in African-American incarceration extends to juveniles, according to statistics produced by Witherspoon. A survey at the Blair County Prison just a few weeks ago showed that, of the 300-plus inmates, more than 50 were African-American. Most of those signed the petitions that were received by Witherspoon and White. White said they have been sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and even President Barack Obama.
While 50-plus does not seem like a large number, it represents about 17 percent of the prison population - that population fluctuating daily - while African-Americans make up 3.3 percent of the Blair County population, according to the 2010 census.
Disparity in sentences
Witherspoon and his NAACP associates - who regularly attend court session with him - William Sweet of Claysburg and Alice Lawrence of Altoona, have been rankled in the past couple of years by sentences in several cases.
A young mother, Natasha Miller, who had a prominent role in the Operation Last Call drug organization that transported, processed and sold cocaine from Baltimore and conducted millions of dollars in sales, received 16 to 32 years. Glenn Piner II, also arrested as part of the Operation Last Call sweep, received seven to 20 years.
Both defendants are young and, Witherspoon said, first-time offenders.
Others in the Operation Last Call cases received stiff sentences that are well-known: Ken Piner, 36 to 72 years, and Jermaine Samuels, 46 to 103 years.
Then there was the sentence imposed on Gene Carter, 104 to 216 years, as the leader of a drug organization that he started while in a Department of Corrections Community Corrections Center.
Witherspoon compares these stiff sentences imposed on black drug dealers to the lenient sentences handed down recently to white child sex offenders, who received anywhere from probation to 60 days to a year behind bars for abusing a child.
Last Thursday, Consiglio attended a Blair County Prison Board meeting and talked about the petitions presented by the inmates.
He knew of some of the letters and petitions, and expressed little sympathy for those, he said, who sell drugs in Blair County, particularly if they come from other areas with the intent to deal.
Why would anybody sympathize with the inmates, he asked.
"They are criminals," he said.
After the prison board meeting, he said, "I can't help that major drug dealers (from Philadelphia and Baltimore) who come into the community are black."
"The white drug dealer gets the same as the black drug dealer," he said.
Consiglio pointed out the first long sentence handed down to a major drug dealer was against Richard Rickabaugh, who was white and from Altoona. Rickabaugh was sentenced to a minimum of 44 years and recently died in prison.
Another major dealer was Efrain Hidalgo, a Native American, who received a minimum sentence of 60 years, at the time the longest prison sentence for a drug dealer ever handed down in Blair County - until Gene Carter. Consiglio denied color is a consideration when it comes to arrest, prosecution or sentencing.
Judge Kopriva said she has explained to Witherspoon that there are many considerations that go into sentencing. She mentioned off-hand that a defendant may have been on probation or parole when he committed a new crime, or he may have refused to cooperate with police, factors that would lead to longer sentences.
Witherspoon, however, maintains that the issues brought up so far represent only the "tip of the iceberg."
The petitions were signed by 44 inmates.
One of the petitions asked for an immediate investigation of the justice system and stated, "Every single fact of this petition the petitioners take highly, immensely serious and hope that when read all of our sincerity is taken into account."