The five counties with the worst fingerprinting rates in the state have the same amount of fingerprinting equipment as the five best counties, Linda Rosenberg, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, told lawmakers today.
A recent PublicSource review of data from 2013 showed that fingerprints were missing from the Pennsylvania State Police fingerprinting database for more than 30,000 cases. The areas with the biggest problems, Luzerne, McKean, Lawrence, Northumberland and Erie Counties, were missing prints for at least a third of all cases in the last half of the year.
Many police departments complain that they don’t have access to fingerprinting equipment, which can cost about $37,000 initially, and thousands more in yearly maintenance and staffing.
But the least compliant counties have roughly equivalent equipment to those with the best records of fingerprinting: Philadelphia, Clinton, Beaver, Lebanon and Lehigh.
“So they have the same amount of equipment, they just aren’t doing it?” Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, asked during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg.
“It appears that way,” said Rosenberg, explaining that a lack of equipment doesn’t always explain why police aren’t fingerprinting defendants.
Lawmakers convened the hearing to learn why missing fingerprints threaten public safety and hear about possible solutions.
Fingerprints are important because if there are none, a defendant has no criminal history. Neither the court system nor other police departments has a record.
So a background check would be clean if the person wanted to teach in a school or day care or work in a nursing home. Their offenses wouldn’t be on record if they wanted to buy a gun.
In the last three years, the PCCD distributed $1.78 million in federal funds to purchase fingerprinting equipment and educate police on the importance of fingerprinting, which is the only method the state uses to establish a defendant’s criminal history.
Funding has been cut at the federal level, but Rosenberg testified that every request to provide money for equipment at a central booking center has been filled.
So far, 254 central booking facilities have been established across the state. The facilities, which Rosenberg champions as a solution to the problem, use electronic fingerprinting machines that transfer prints to state and federal databases in a matter of minutes.
By state law, police are required to fingerprint suspected criminals within 48 hours of arrest.
But central booking won’t solve everything.
Allegheny County, for instance, has central booking, but prints were still missing in about 9 percent of its cases from 2013.
Thomas G. Miller Jr., a magisterial district judge in Allegheny County and president of the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania, said prints are missing because the responsibility for fingerprinting is sometimes left to the defendant, even if they’ve already been taken into custody.
In those cases, a defendant will be given a fingerprint order and trusted to appear on his or her own to be printed.
The problem, he said, is that Allegheny County has such a high volume of cases that defendants have to make an appointment to be printed. And it could take four to six weeks to get an appointment.
Meanwhile, the case may continue through the court system, even though no fingerprint record – and thus no list of all arrests – has been created.
The prints may never be made if prosecutors cut a deal to reduce the charges. Then, there would be no record that a defendant was actually arrested on more serious charges.
Defense attorneys sometimes tell their clients not to follow a fingerprint order because the charges may be reduced to a summary offense, Miller said.
David Price, testifying on behalf of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said that judges don’t currently have the authority to hold a defendant in contempt for refusing to follow a fingerprint order.
Changing that authority would require a change in the law, Price said.
Police are responsible
Police, themselves, are part of the problem.
John Livingood, deputy chief of the Abington Township Police Department, said he learned that some officers were trying to secure cooperation from defendants in drug cases by offering to reduce charges to summary offenses and not having them processed.
The officers were well-meaning, he said, but state law does not give police leeway to cut those deals.
“We will not do this at the cost of processing,” said Livingood, adding that the problem had been fixed.
Abington Township was only missing prints in about 15 percent of its cases in 2012, but Livingood said he was surprised to learn that compliance wasn’t much higher.
The department reviewed every case with a missing print, and he said most of the problem could be attributed to cases charged using a summons, which requires defendants to comply with a fingerprint order.
Abington Township has a central booking system, and despite the problems uncovered, is a model for how the state thinks fingerprinting should be done.
The question then, is what can lawmakers do to fix the problem?
Rep. Mike Regan, R-York/Cumberland, said an answer might be to amend the law so a defendant can be prosecuted for not complying with a fingerprint order.
“That would certainly put some heat to it,” Miller said.
A rule change for state courts could also require that fingerprints be made before a case proceeds past a certain point. Price said he was unaware of any attempt by the courts to change their rules, but Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, who chairs the committee, said the committee may urge the state court system to take action.
13 percent still missing
Compliance statewide has improved. In 2006, prints were missing for roughly a third of all cases. Now prints are missing for 13 percent of all cases statewide, according to the PCCD.
Since the creation of a website earlier this year which reveals which counties and departments are lagging in fingerprinting, Rosenberg said compliance has increased another 1 percent.
Since June, Rosenberg said at least 25 departments have contacted the PCCD to learn more about how they are doing.
Yet many counties and departments continue to lag.
“We have the courts, police, etc., really not following through with the law,” Marsico said.
PublicSource is an investigative news organization that collaborates with newspapers and radio throughout Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org. Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.