The following is the first of three articles detailing the views of the candidates for magisterial district judge in Masontown and the surrounding areas.
Seven candidates running for the magisterial district judge seat covering Masontown and surrounding areas sat down with the Herald-Standard recently to discuss their views on a variety of subjects pertinent to the office they seek, including the issues of truancy and bail.
The candidates, who have all cross-filed, include three attorneys, Charity Grimm-Krupa, John Kopas and Doug Sholtis; Brenda Cavalcante, a senior magisterial district judge in Masontown; Jeff Myers, chief of security, director of safety, and crisis team leader for the Fayette County Career and Technical Institute; Joseph C. Ryan, police chief for the Masontown Police Department; and Dan Shimshock, German Township Supervisor.
Truancy was a subject that most candidates agreed is problematic.
All the candidates echoed the notion that truancy should be handled on a case-by-case basis to find effective solutions for individual families.
Three candidates are current school board members in the Albert Gallatin School District — Kopas, Myers and Sholtis.
Myers said truancy is a major concern, however, the magistrate’s office lacks the ability to exact meaningful consequences.
“There’s no consequence if they don’t pay,” Myers said. He suggested offering community service instead of fines, noting it would take action at the state level to make changes in the way truancy cases are handled.
In his experience, Myers said, intense supervision makes a difference for families dealing with truancy, but the schools lack the resources for that.
“I would like to have the hearings at school,” Myers said. “Connellsville has done this and it’s proven very, very effective.”
Sholtis said, “I think truancy is a big problem.”
Sometimes the problem is with the parents, he said, when the children are younger. Sometimes the problem is with the students, though, he said, when they are too old for their parents to “make” them go.
Sholtis said he likes the idea that the magistrates would actually go into the school to hold hearings, because then school personnel wouldn’t have to leave school to deal with those matters. That, he said, would save time and money, and show the students how important truancy is to school administrators and the courts.
Kopas said the question a magistrate judge must address is whether the parents should be penalized. He said he would need to look at those cases individually to find out whether the parents had a good reason to keep the child home from school or not.
“You have to apply discretion, obviously,” Kopas said.
Shimshock, a former educator, said he’s seen firsthand that truancy can be a problem. He also said the matters should be handled on a case-by-case basis. “I listen to people,” he added.
When it comes to truancy hearings, the magistrate office needs to be accessible, Shimshock said. If hearings need to happen at school, so be it, he said.
Cavalcante said early intervention is important in truancy cases.
“You have to start early,” she said. “Stress being there.”
When the children are older, the responsibility to be in school can fall more on the student than the parent, she pointed out. “Some parents of high schoolers leave for work before they go to school, they have no choice,” she said, and those parents may not even be aware their kids skip school.
She agreed with the idea that there should be alternatives to fines and costs, like community service, but that the state would have to act in order to bring about such alternatives.
Grimm-Krupa said while she feels truancy is important, “I don’t think it’s the crime of the century.”
She said too often it’s the good parents of the good students who are the most worried about getting letters from the truancy office. Part of alleviating the number of truancy cases, she said, is changing the rules regarding excuses to add flexibility for busy parents.
She said she has observed, for example, that an absence for a doctor visit is considered unexcused if a note from the doctor isn’t turned in within three days. If there’s proof from the doctor’s office that the child was there on a particular date, she said, that should be evidence to support an excused absence, whether it’s turned in within three days or not.
The candidates were also asked about their philosophy on bail, and whether it can be used to deter crime.
Across the board, all candidates agreed that bail should not be looked upon as a deterrent. The sole function of bail is to ensure a defendant’s appearance at court proceedings, they all said.
“Bail cannot be used as a deterrent,” said Shimshock. If that were the case, he said, poor people could be put in jail more frequently while awaiting trial just because they can’t afford bail, and that would be unfair.
Cavalcante said in her 13 years on the bench, she weighed certain factors to determine what bail amount is appropriate. She said a magistrate has to consider whether the defendant lives in the community and whether he or she has a job or other significant ties.
“You also have to look out for the victim,” Cavalcante added.
Myers echoed her sentiments, saying the witnesses as well as the victims need to be considered. He said he would follow the guidelines for magistrates when it comes to setting bail, and look at each defendant individually to see what he or she is eligible for.
Kopas pointed out that bail is one of the very first steps at the magisterial level.
The amount is guided by statute, he said, and the primary concern is ensuring the defendant will show up to the hearing. Society’s safety, the gravity of offense, and community connectedness all come into play, he said.
Even if bail could be used as a deterrent, Kopas said, he’s not sure if criminals in the moment are thinking about how high the bail might be if they get caught.
Sholtis said bail should be set at an appropriate amount to fit the crime.
“The more heinous the crime, the higher the bail,” he said. On the other hand, he said, if you set bail too high, it can trigger an appeal. He stressed the need to make sure bail is being applied correctly.
Grimm-Krupa pointed out that, except in capital cases, defendants have a right to bond.
She said she had mixed feelings about defendants being ordered to pretrial services as a condition of bail. Pretrial services are sometimes used to determine conditions of release, and to provide for supervision of defendants who are out on bond.
According to Grimm-Krupa, ““It’s like being on a period of probation before admitting guilt.”
Ryan pointed out that conditions set on bail can be useful in domestic violence cases.
“You can deter that behavior with bail conditions,” he said. For example, the defendant can be ordered to stay away from and not communicate with the victim as a condition of bail.