Bill that would limit inmates’ records access passes PA House | News, Sports, Jobs

HARRISBURG (AP) — A bill that would allow incarcerated individuals to request public records only about themselves or their own cases is making its way through the Pennsylvania legislature.

Supporters of the bill say it would help stem a tide of frivolous inquiries that can tie up government resources, while opponents say it’s unlikely to solve the problem and is likely unconstitutional to boot.

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 112 to 88 on Tuesday and will now go to the Senate. It would change the state’s right-to-know law by restricting inmates’ access to documents held by governments and public bodies.

Authorities would only have to provide public government documents about the inmate in certain categories, and as long as those records didn’t “reduce security or protection” by someone or the correctional facility where the inmate is being held.

Detained individuals are treated as all other requesters under current law, said Liz Wagenseller, executive director of the Office of Open Records.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said the law would prevent incarcerated people from lawfully requesting information to which they are entitled.

“To me, it’s unscrupulous that we could use that kind of language to vote for a bill that basically wields a sledgehammer on the civil rights of incarcerated people.” he said.

Rep. Louis C. Schmitt Jr., R-Blair, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the legislation is an attempt to ease the burden on agencies trying to accommodate a spate of requests.

“Requests by inmates under the Right to Information Act account for a large percentage of disputes over what inmates are entitled to. This leads to appeals to the Office of Open Records and sometimes to litigation in court.” said Smith. “I think at least part of the reason for the inmate requisitioner portion of the bill was to try to take some pressure off the Office of Open Records and maybe even the courts to some degree.”

Schmitt said the legislation makes it clear to the inmate and the agency exactly what categories they can access by giving inmates “A Guide to What They’re Entitled to” according to the law.

In 2021, of the 2,990 complaints filed with the Office of Open Records, 335 were from inmates.

The law aims to do that too “annoying demanders” – those who have one “Intent to annoy or harass a local authority.”

Under the invoice, requesters could not be found as “aggravating” by the number of applications submitted or the number of applications applied for. The authority would need to demonstrate that the requester’s actions were aimed at harassment or harassment. Journalists would be exempt from this.

Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, said the bill would not prevent local governments and school districts from engaging with people who habitually make requests for information “for no legitimate purpose.”

“Unfortunately, the language of this bill does not solve this problem,” he said. “There is no one who will thank us for passing this law.”

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the proposal “cherry picking” who the government answers by calling them “probably unconstitutional”

Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, said that the legislation is “No restrictions on whether information should be public and in what form it may be requested,” but “about the types of people who can make inquiries.”

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