You make a mistake.
Maybe too much to drink at a party. Maybe something you would never do seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. In hindsight, perhaps while being booked at Centre County Correctional Facility, you could just kick yourself. If only there were a way to have that moment back.
There is. The state of Pennsylvania gives people a one-time-only get-out-of-jail-free card in the form of the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. Every month, Centre County judges induct new people into the program that gives them a chance to get help, deal with problems and pay their debt with the hope of walking away without a real criminal record.
County records point to it as “a special pretrial intervention program for nonviolent offenders who have limited or no prior record,” giving second chances to people who aren’t expected to re-offend and saving taxpayers the expense of a trial or jail time.
But the recent federal arrest of Christopher Lee, 65, of Boalsburg, has made some wonder about what offenders qualify for the program.
Lee, a Harris Township supervisor and the CEO of the historic estate that is Columbus Chapel and the Boal Mansion Museum, was indicted this month by a grand jury on charges of child exploitation and child pornography. It isn’t the first time he has faced charges alleging questionable behavior with children.
In 2005, Lee was charged with indecent assault in a case relating to allegations that he touched two children, ages 8 and 10, on an overnight stay at the mansion, where Lee, a descendant of the Boal family, lives.
Lee was admitted into the ARD program and, in 2009, his criminal record was expunged. And, according to the Prothonotary’s Office, those records are sealed, the images restricted and only a court order can change that.
“The ARD program is designated for persons who are charged with crimes that are ‘relatively minor and do not involve a serious breach of the public trust,’ ” Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said. She was not the DA at the time Lee’s case was handled, and said she could not speak about the case in specifics, but did address ARD hypothetically.
“Child abuse crimes are exceedingly serious. They change a child forever and are the very definition of a breach of the public trust, because the abuser fools many people to get to the child. Child abuse crimes are the stark opposite of this definition,” she said, calling the idea of using ARD for child-related crimes “a pathetic and ineffectual resolution.”
According to Clearfield County DA William Shaw, the state does not give much direction. The crimes for which ARD can be used are not mandated, leaving them up to the individual prosecutors’ offices to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Some prosecutors draw clear lines in the sand. The Franklin County policy is available online, listing the crimes that qualify, such as DUI, and those that don’t. On a list of 32 crimes that are not included is indecent assault, along with various other crimes against children.
“I would also note the district attorney has discretion in deciding what cases should be submitted for ARD placement, but should keep in mind the goals and purposes of the program, justice and the standards and expectations of the community,” Parks Miller said.
The Centre County district attorney at the time Lee’s charges were recommended for ARD was Michael Madeira, who stepped into an office still in flux after the April 2005 disappearance of longtime county prosecutor Ray Gricar. In Centre Daily Times articles at the time, Madeira defended his decision, saying he was sparing the children a trial, despite opposition from the mother of the two victims, who wanted to see the charges proceed to trial.
“I respect her opinion, her concerns,” Madeira said at the time. “It was just a risk I was not willing to take.”
Madeira handed off possible prosecution on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal to the state Attorney General’s Office because of a conflict of interest. His brother-in-law is one of Sandusky’s adopted sons.
According to state code, being accepted into the ARD program does not translate into a conviction, especially with the opportunity to successfully complete the program and possibly have the charges expunged.
However, the law also specifically states that ARD participation can be counted as a conviction for sentencing purposes on future offenses.
“The district attorney has a great deal of discretion in deciding who should be placed on the ARD program. I’m sure that many factors are weighed, including the likelihood of rehabilitation, the strength of their case and the likelihood of a conviction should the case proceed to trial,” said Centre County Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who could also not speak to the Lee case but only about the program in general.
“When evaluating a case for ARD placement, a judge relies on the DA’s discretion and knowledge of their case,” he said. “A DA, like any attorney, has an ethical obligation to be truthful to the court in this and any other case where a judge is being asked to accept a recommended disposition. Absent a manifest abuse of discretion, judges will rely on those recommendations.”
With the federal charges now on the table, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania said that, if convicted, Lee could face penalties of life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years on one charge and five on another. There could also be fines of up to $1 million.