Whether it is sexual abuse allegations, assault charges or something of the like, our elected officials seem more embattled in controversy today than ever before in recent memory.
While much of the focus has stayed on candidates for national office, the phenomenon has also played a part in local elections here in Central Pennsylvania, where three candidates for Harrisburg School Board seats had been found earlier this year to have felony convictions in their past, according to Penn Live.
While none of these folks garnered enough of the vote to take office, the effect of the conversation they started has been felt by one of the election’s seat winners in Carrie Fowler. Fowler has never had a felony conviction, but does have several misdemeanors, one of which prompted a Dauphin County prosecutor to ask her to step down.
Fowler’s crime: she was the recipient of a stolen license plate that had been found during a 2001 traffic stop. She has denied that she knew it was stolen, though a criminal complaint against her said she either “knew such property was stolen or believed that it probably had been stolen,” according to Penn Live.
This is a problem because both felonies and “infamous” crimes are disqualifying factors for holding public office in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, the definition of “infamous” is not clear cut. It does not necessarily mean crimes that are serious or violent in nature (Pennsylvania courts have ruled that it did not apply to a borough councilman who had held his girlfriend at gunpoint in a car for three hours, according to Penn Live) but has been defined by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to include all “cimen falsi”, which covers theft by receiving stolen property, according to Penn Live.
To make the situation more confusing, York City Council President and Mayor-elect Michael Helfrich has two drug felonies in his past, but a judge had ruled that he could serve on city council, though precedents in other cases determined this to be disqualifying.
Though we will have to wait and see how this situation plays out, it does raise some interesting questions about who should be able to serve in public office and who should be disqualified. This is especially the case in a time where we are debating whether people like Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who is embattled with decades-old sexual abuse accusations from numerous women.
First of all, we think it is imperative that some sort of consistent standard is applied to everyone who has some unsavory details about their past. The language of “infamous” in this state law in question, and the way it has been interpreted, is much too vague and convoluted. It is ridiculous that a man who held his girlfriend at gunpoint was not held to the same standard as a woman who received a stolen license plate. The two are in totally different leagues.
Second, we think that people should generally be given a second chance in their public lives. Provided the felony or infamous crime they were convicted of is non-violent and does not involve fraud, corruption or embezzlement in a way that would prove detrimental to public office, we do not see a problem with these people holding office.
Maybe a statute of limitations could be established that bars people convicted of these crimes from serving public office for a certain number of years. If enough time passes with no problems, then the person’s ban could be lifted and they could pursue election once again. We see no need to punish people for old non-violent, generally non-serious crimes when they could be a benefit to our public offices.
Overall, we understand the need for a standard to exist, otherwise we would leave the doors open to people who should not hold office like pedophiles, serious drug dealers or violent criminals. With that said, Pennsylvania’s current system is much too convoluted and inconsistent.