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Blair transitions through criminal justice reform law

New rules mean some inmates get new sentences

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Two Blair County women are closer to being released from state prison after their attorneys argued Friday against their entry into the state’s new Drug Treatment Program.

In December, a criminal justice reform initiative signed by Gov. Tom Wolf introduced the Drug Treatment Program as a replacement for the State Intermediate Punishment program.

The new program, like the SIP program, mixes incarceration and drug-treatment options. But unlike the SIP program with a multi-step review process to gain admission, entry into the state’s Drug Treatment Program is expected to be faster, starting soon after a county judge signs a sentencing order.

“My personal opinion is that these changes are for the better,” Judge Timothy M. Sullivan said in court Friday where he handed down three new sentences because of the change in law.

Of the three sentences, only Sally Joan Pope of Altoona was directed toward the state’s Drug Treatment Program, based on the two- to four-year sentence handed down. The new sentence replaces her prior sentence, handed down last year, which had her in the review process for the SIP program.

Based on her new sentence, Pope should get credit for six months’ incarceration and move toward residential and outpatient treatment options under the state’s new Drug Treatment Program.

Two other state prison inmates, however, should be getting discharged soon based on their new sentences that replaced sentences requiring them to be evaluated for entry into the state’s SIP program.

Sullivan handed down a time-served to four years’ incarceration sentence for Tara Lynn McKee of Altoona, to replace a sentence directing her to be evaluated for the SIP program.

Defense attorney Ed Zang pointed out that McKee, who has no prior record, has already spent about a year in jail, exceeding standard sentencing guidelines for conspiracy and possession offenses.

Sentencing her to more jail time would be harsh punishment for what the state is doing, Zang said.

Sullivan acknowledged McKee’s incarceration time and named it as a reason for why he imposed the time-served sentence.

The judge also said that the delay McKee has experienced, while being evaluated for the SIP program, was one of the reasons why lawmakers pursued changes.

McKee, incarcerated at the state prison at Muncy, participated in Friday’s court proceeding by video.

She said she has been there since August and has taken advantage of its programs.

“I enjoy being sober now,” she told Sullivan. “A year ago, I had one foot in recovery and one foot out.”

Sullivan advised her that upon release, she will need to be evaluated for drug use and follow treatment recommendations to comply with parole conditions.

“If you offend again, you’ll be back in state prison,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also opted to impose a sentence of 18 to 36 months on Breonna C. Martino of Altoona to replace her previous sentence directing her to be considered for the SIP program.

Martino has served about a year in jail on her drug-related offenses, defense attorney Justin Carpenter said, echoing arguments Zang offered on McKee’s behalf.

Carpenter also reported that Martino is eligible for early release through the state’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, thereby taking her minimum sentence down to 13.5 months.

That confirmation and a release date will rest with the state parole board.

Sullivan said he believes there are about seven more inmates who will need to be resentenced in Blair County because of the change in state law.

Meanwhile, county judges can now direct defendants into the State Drug Treatment Program, which Judge Jackie Bernard opted to do Friday when imposing a two- to five-year sentence on Brandon S. Ford of Altoona.

Ford rendered guilty pleas last year to conspiracy, drug delivery and possession charges. His sentencing has been on hold, pending a presentence investigation and a psychological examination.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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