Requests from inmates overwhelm Pa. open records system

    Proposed revisions to Pennsylvania’s open records law appear to require more fine-tuning as lawmakers attempt to address a surging number of requests from prison inmates.

    State prisoners are among the most frequent filers when it comes to seeking documents under the state’s open records law with the number of requests rising steadily since 2009. Proposed legislation calls for limiting the scope of those requests.

    But the head of the state’s Office of Open Records doesn’t think that will actually reduce the number of records sought or streamline the evaluation process.

    Even with that proposed change, Terry Mutchler said, inmates would still be allowed to ask — and therefore, gum up the system tasked with responding to their queries.

    “A way to correct it might be, and if you ask for records outside of this, there has to be a form letter or something, so that it just cuts off the process,” she suggested.

    A raft of changes has been proposed to update the 2008 Right to Know law.

    Lawmakers are also wrestling with how to expand the law to apply to the four state-related universities — Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln — which are largely exempt from the measure. They’d like to keep it that way.

    Additional oversight would be cumbersome, according to Valerie Harrison, general counsel for Lincoln University.

    “The inclusion of Lincoln as a state agency under the Right to Know law would impose a substantial administrative workload and cost while providing little additional substantive information as to how state funding is spent,” she said Monday.

    In other states that have expanded their transparency laws to universities, Mutchler said, the schools have proved quite adept at dealing with records requests.

    Interest in broadening the open records law was prompted by the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case at Penn State.

    Many lawmakers support expanding the law so that campus police records, in particular, are presumed public documents, as well as other functions of the schools.The four universities together receive more than $500 million from the state.

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