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Casey: Fed cash needed to fight gangs, drugs

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said federal funding is crucial to combatting the area’s drug- and gang-related crimes at a press conference Thursday.

CHRISTOPHER J. HUGHES PHOTO / FOR Go Lackawanna

SCRANTON – U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said Thursday morning that local law enforcement officials are effectively fighting against many types of crime in northeastern Pennsylvania, but federal funds are crucial to combating a rise in heroin- and gang-related activity.

Casey, speaking at a press conference at his Scranton office, cited a report titled the “Eastern Pennsylvania Drug and Gang Threat Assessment 2011” which was released last month by the National Drug Intelligence Center as the need for money from Washington in local municipalities.

The report looks at 42 of the state’s 67 counties, accounting for eight million people.

“We’re fighting a problem in 42 counties of eastern Pennsylvania. This isn’t a couple of cities in a few counties. It demonstrates the challenge that we have,” Casey said.

The assessment outlines the increase of New York area and Dominican gangs in the region, the sharp increase of heroin use including among adolescents, and frequent home invasions in eastern Pennsylvania drug markets.

It accurately depicts criminal activity that the Luzerne County District Attorney’s office has encountered, Deputy District Attorney David Pedri said. It especially reflects the influx of street gangs in the city of Hazleton.

“We see the drug trade moving farther into our community,” Pedri said. “With federal help, we’re able to take a proactive approach to move forward with our prosecutions. Drugs are here in northeastern Pennsylvania. That’s a fact,” he said.

The job now is to make the drug trade a difficult one to practice.

“With federal grants and good law enforcement, we’re doing that,” Pedri said.

In Pennsylvania, authorities seized nearly 264 kilograms of heroin in 2010, a sharp increase from the nearly 88 kilograms seized in 2009, according to reports given to the National Seizure System. The jump, Casey said, represents the good work of law enforcement along with the increase in the quantity of heroin available.

The senator said he will continue to ask Attorney General Eric Holder for more federal money to combat drug- and gang-related crime in the eastern part of the commonwealth.

“I want them to understand the urgency of getting help,” Casey said of a conversation he had with members of the Justice Department Thursday morning.

“The problem is that we’ve got folks in Washington who want to dramatically and substantially slash funding,” Casey said. “We have to fight very hard just to maintain funding… We have a lot of work to do.”

A decrease in the number of violent crimes “demonstrates that at the federal, state, county and municipal level, the mayors, district attorneys, police officers, prosecutors and federal officials are doing their job,” Casey said. “But on this particular challenge, they need more help.”

Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola said the challenge for local officials is how to remain one step ahead of criminal trends. The report, Jarbola said, offers crucial information that helps officials properly direct funds and resources.

“It comes down to dollars and cents,” Jarbola said. “I certainly want to applaud Sen. Casey for his efforts in getting the money that is absolutely necessary to keep one step ahead of the bad guys.”

After the press conference, Casey conducted a closed-door discussion with local and federal officials on fighting back against the region’s challenges.

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