Budget brinksmanship leaves last-minute bills in doubt

FILE- In this Jan. 15, 2019, file photo an America flag flies at the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. In Pennsylvania, good fiscal times may not necessarily mean good fiscal condition. The rage in the state Capitol right now is the surplus that state government rolled up in the almost-ended fiscal year, helped by unexpectedly strong corporate and sales tax collections. That news alone is fueling requests from a legion of lobbyists with pet projects, but the momentary surplus has not necessarily changed views from the outside that Pennsylvania is a state with tall fiscal challenges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The state House sent Gov. Tom Wolf legislation Tuesday that would increase the penalties for encouraging an individual to commit suicide — a bill inspired by the 2019 death of a York County woman.

House Bill 184 passed the state House by a vote of 152-49 on Tuesday. It had previously passed the state Senate by a 34-16 vote in June.

The legislation is named for Shawn Shatto, who took her own life in her parent’s Newberry Township home after she received a step-by-step guide on how to die by suicide from an online chat forum. At least one person on the forum told her that suicide was the best route and wished Shawn well on her journey instead of encouraging her to seek help, according to information provided by House Republicans after the vote.

House Bill 184 calls for sentences for a person who encourages another person who is under the age of 18 or has an intellectual disability to die by suicide to be increased. Under the law, intellectual disability is defined as someone, regardless of age, who has significantly below average intellectual functioning and has significant limitations in two of the following areas: communication, self-care, home living, social and interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, health or safety. The legislation doesn’t specify how much the state should increase the penalty in such cases, but directs the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to set the sentence enhancement.

Gov. Tom Wolf has not decided whether to sign the legislation or not, his spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said.

“The governor will review the final bill when it gets to his desk,” she said.

The legislation is a response to “pure evil, cruelty and darkness,” said state Rep. Dawn Keefer, R- York County, the sponsor of the bill.

“Shawn died at the direct assistance and encouragement of a horrific suicide website, and with her mother, right in the next room, unaware of what was transpiring. Those monsters on that horrible website encouraged her, wishing her good luck and safe travels,” Keefer said ahead of the House vote Tuesday afternoon. “As she was carrying out a plan to end her life. She told them that she had that she felt bad because her mom was in the room next door. Their only concern was that her mom might hear her and call for help,” Keefer said.

State Rep. Tim Briggs, D- Montgomery County, said that the legislation is unneeded because encouraging or helping an individual commit suicide already carries stiff penalties.

“The penalties for causing or aiding suicide are already significant, intentionally causing suicide by force or deception is considered criminal homicide, and is punishable by death or life in prison without parole. Intentionally aiding or soliciting suicide that causes someone to attempt or die by suicide is graded as a second-degree felony and punishable by up to 10 years of incarcerated and intentionally assisting suicide that does not result in an attempt or death is graded as a second degree misdemeanor punishable by two years of incarceration,” Briggs said.

“These crimes are heinous. But we should be honest with the public, these crimes are already severely punished,” he said.

Assistance to prevent suicide can be found by calling The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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