Public hearing in non-public location isn't, in fact, public

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A unique and disappointing case of public access to a criminal proceeding developed this week in regard to the parole hearing for Scott J. Binsack, the Shamokin man known for the "Something's Smokin in Shamokin" Facebook page who eluded authorities for nearly a month before his capture Nov. 20 in Bath, N.Y.

The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole scheduled the hearing at State Correctional Institution-Rockview in Bellefonte for 9:15 a.m. Thursday. The News-Item requested permission to attend, but the prison's information officer said point blank that wouldn't be possible because Rockview is a "secure facility." The public and press aren't permitted inside.

Calls to PBPP and the state Department of Corrections to protest the arrangement also got us nowhere, with time limitations not helping.

We understand the need to control who comes and goes at a state prison, but our contention is the hearing could have been moved to a local magistrate's office or the nearby Centre County Courthouse, allowing us and the many people who have been impacted by Binsack to attend if they so desired.

Part of the issue is that first-and second-level parole hearings - the first to determine if authorities have a right to continue holding an alleged parole violator, the second to determine if he or she actually violated parole - aren't typically of interest to the public. As Leo Dunn, spokesman for PBPP, told us, this is the second time he can remember media requesting access to such a proceeding.

As for lack of access at Rockview, DOC press secretary Susan McNaughton said, simply, "that is the rule." It's a matter of security for the inmate, she said, and it's "easier."

We don't agree, of course, and neither does Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

"A public hearing held in a non-public location isn't public," she wrote in response to our inquiry about this situation. "The PBPP should accommodate any party interested in attending the proceeding."

Melewsky couldn't pinpoint a provision of law that expressly requires a PBPP revocation hearing to be public, although there is some language in the statute about public notice being provided of the board's consideration of an inmate for parole. But, similar revocation hearings handled at the county court level are public unless sealed for good cause, she said.

"Considering the role of the PBPP in the administration of criminal justice, the hearings should be public; however, it is important to note that records in PBPP possession, with a few notable exceptions, are not public records," she said.

The issue of public hearings being conducted in prison comes up on occasion when inmates are arraigned while incarcerated. In order to save time and money, the courts allow magisterial district judges to conduct certain proceedings remotely by video while the defendant is incarcerated.

"Soon after video conferencing began and occasionally still, I hear from journalists who have been denied access at one (or both) proceeding locations," Melewsky told us. "The court system acknowledges that these proceedings are public and typically accommodates journalists at the (magistrate) location, and sometimes there is space at a jail facility, although prison access is not typical."

We agree with her assessment that the PBPP can and should look at how the court handles judicial proceedings so that access can be facilitated.

"Holding a public hearing in a location that does not allow public access creates an insurmountable barrier to access, and that can't continue, even if the PBPP anticipates sparse public attendance," she said.

To Dunn's point that our request was a rare one, this is the Binsack case, so further oddity comes as no surprise.

(Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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