Bill that would limit inmates’ records access passes House

The law would allow incarcerated individuals to request public records only about themselves or their case

HARRISBURG, Pa — Editor’s Note: This video is from May 2021.

A bill that would allow inmates 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 spate of reckless inquiries that can tie up state resources, while opponents say it is unlikely to solve the problem and is likely unconstitutional.

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 so long as those records did not “compromise” the “security” of anyone 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 slams a sledgehammer down on the civil rights of people who are incarcerated,” 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 about what inmates are entitled to. That leads to appeals to the Office of Open Records and sometimes litigation in court,” Schmitt said. “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 extent.”

Schmitt said the legislation makes it clear to the inmate and the agency exactly what categories they have access to and gives inmates “a guide to what they are entitled to under the law.”

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

The legislation also targets “annoying requesters” – those with “intent to annoy or harass a local authority”.

Under the bill, applicants could not be considered “annoying” by the number of applications they filed 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 dealing with people who commonly make requests for information “without a 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 rejects the “cherry picking” proposal to which the government is responding, calling it “probably unconstitutional.”

Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, said the legislation “does not impose restrictions on whether information should be public information and in what form it can be requested” but “in relation to the types of people who can make requests”.

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