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Chung: ‘We can’t arrest our way out of addiction’

US Attorney visits region to discuss problems faced by law enforcement

U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania Cindy Chung said arrests and prosecutions are not enough to address the problems faced by law enforcement.

The message she and her staff related in a visit to Blair County on Wednesday focused on a need for a holistic approach in the fight against the rising wave of violence and drug trafficking that Americans are enduring.

“We can’t arrest our way out of addiction,” said Chung. Federal, state and local authorities must find new ways to deal with the drug problem, prevent violence and address the recidivism, the repeated imprisonment of reoffend.

“It does feel like this is the moment to bring everybody together,” Chung stated as she outlined how her office can help in the ongoing struggle to counter what is happening across Pennsylvania and throughout the nation.

Chung was accompanied to Blair County by her First Assistant, Troy Rivetti, a federal prosecutor with more than 20 years’ experience, and Mike Warfield, who is retired from the state police and who serves as the law enforcement coordinator for the federal office.

Her staff also includes Tamara Collier, a community outreach specialist who is experienced in the development of reentry programs for inmates who are eventually to be released into the community.

Chung was in contact Wednesday with Blair County social service officials like Scott Shultz, the Blair County Reentry Coalition coordinator, and Ken Dean, a mental health program specialist who helped with the development of the coalition.

“She was pretty impressive. … It was very beneficial,” Dean said of the meeting with Chung and her staff.

Chung has been with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania since 2014.

She was confirmed as the U.S. Attorney in November after being appointed by President Joe Biden.

During the appointment process, she garnered the support of Pennsylvania senators Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey.

Aiding reentry efforts

Dean said Chung offered help from her office as the Blair County reentry program gets off the ground.

The program was conceived just prior to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has now gotten through its initial stages.

Initially he worked in conjunction with Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb.

The coalition includes a board of 30 individuals, and two subcommittees that meet monthly.

The program works closely with Chris Frantz, Blair County Prison forensic coordinator.

Dean said that the idea is to work with inmates, who eventually will be released, “to give them the tools so they won’t go back to jail.”

One of the issues, Dean noted, is to identify inmates with mental health issues.

Blair County participates in the Stepping UP Initiative, a program, which identifies inmates with mental health and co-occurring drug issues — all in an effort to get them help.

Dean said that individuals with mental health and drug issues tend to spend more time in prison because they often have “burned bridges” and don’t have a great deal of family support.

He added that the reentry effort must deal with multiple problems facing inmates from mental health issues, housing, education and employment.

“We are chipping away at it. It is difficult,” Dean said as he explained what the coalition is attempting to do to address Blair County’s recidivism rate, which he said is “pretty high.”

But he noted the effort is worthwhile if it keeps people from reoffending.

Chung, he said, will be getting back to the Blair County Reentry Coalition though Collier, her reentry specialist.

“She seems to think we are doing really well here,” he said.

Reentry is just a piece of the justice system that Chung and her staff talked about.

Chung noted that providing employment for inmates returning to their communities is most beneficial in addressing recidivism.

“Law enforcement,” she said, “wants to be part of the message as well.”

Fighting trafficking

She said her office can assist state and local police with drug trafficking cases.

She noted U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown has spent the last couple of months sentencing and preparing for trials of suspects in a drug organization that affected many western Pennsylvania counties, including Clearfield.

Federal authorities used their ability to tap into the communication devices of that network, which was moving illegal drugs from the Philadelphia area into western Pennsylvania.

Chung said her office also is adept at addressing cyber crime and child pornography.

So following the meeting with Dean, Chung and her staff met with Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks.

“I would say her and her staff were extremely nice and professional,” Weeks said.

In her meeting with Weeks, Chung’s focus was on the willingness of federal authorities to assist Blair County law enforcement with cases, and to assume prosecution of some cases.

Weeks said, “It makes sense to partner with federal authorities.”

In the past, some cases that were transferred to the federal government did not turn out the way Blair County would have liked, but in addressing Chung’s offer, he said,“We’re willing to explore it.”

Weeks said that Chung did not mention her emphasis on the need for reentry programs when talking to him, but he too is fully in favor of efforts that will bring about positive results for inmates attempting to reintegrate into the community.

He pointed out that Blair County has been on the front line of programs designed to help individuals with drug and alcohol problems avoid recidivism and prison, pointing to Blair’s specialty courts for drug abusers and impaired drivers.

Weeks also favored help for those who have mental health issues, but from his standpoint, the No. 1 issue is community safety.

Some in law enforcement these days have moved community safety from first to last, which he does not support.

Community outreach

While Chung plans to meet with officials in each of the 25 counties covered by her office, she and her staff have attended several community-based meetings aimed at preventing violence.

Last weekend, two Pittsburgh teenagers died during a mass shooting at a party.

Two days later, she attended a meeting in Braddock of the Greater Valley Coalition Against Violence, a group that was formed to address and prevent gun violence, particularly among juveniles.

News reports quoted her as saying, “To the extent that I can bring solutions or bring resources to the problem, I want to do that.”

Federal authorities do not have juvenile courts as such, but Chung related during Wednesday’s interview that her office can help by working with local police and other authorities in following through on tips about people who are likely to commit violence.

“A lot of chiefs and district attorneys can identify those who are disproportionate in doing violence in their communities,’ Chung said.

She emphasized that federal authorities can be very helpful in identifying individuals who are providing juveniles with firearms.

The discussion about firearms in the hands of juveniles led to a point the federal prosecutors wanted to make.

A large percentage of guns in the hands of criminals have been stolen, and a large number of those stolen weapons were taken from automobiles.

So half the message is about crime.

“We are still very committed to prosecuting violent offenders,” Chung said.

The other half of the message is about “responsible gun ownership. Don’t leave it in a car,” Rivetti chimed in.

Altoona Mirror reporter Kay Stephens contributed to this story. She can be reached at kstephens@altoonamirror.com.

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