HARRISBURG — A bill that would allow prosecutors to seek more serious penalties for hazing awaits final action in the state House after passing the Senate unanimously earlier this year.
The bill has the backing of one of the most powerful members of the Senate -- Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County whose district includes Penn State. The measure passed the state Senate unanimously in April. It passed the House judiciary committee in June, also unanimously.
Corman said he’s confident that if the measure comes up for a vote before the full House it will pass.
When that will happen isn’t entirely clear.
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, said that there are other legislative priorities in the House next week, as the fall session gets underway. The top priorities are: the House version of legislation to bar people from possessing firearms if they’ve been served a protection from abuse order, and potentially amending a Senate bill that would change the state’s statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.
Miskin said House members would likely talk about the hazing legislation in closed-door meetings but he wasn’t sure when it might come up for a public vote.
The push to get the measure passed comes less than a month after prosecutors saw the most serious charges thrown out in the prosecution of a group of fraternity members at Penn State following the death of a pledge.
Centre County Magisterial District Judge Carmine Prestia Jr. on Aug. 24 dismissed involuntary manslaughter and the other most serious charges filed against Beta Theta Pi fraternity members for their alleged roles in the 2017 death of pledge Timothy Piazza. He allowed prosecution under the state’s existing hazing law to continue. It was the third time that a judge in the case had refused to allow prosecution on homicide-related charges in Piazza’s death.
“A lot of that was because of the inadequacies in our existing hazing law,” Corman said. He described the current hazing law in Pennsylvania as “generic.”
Senate Bill 1090, authored by Corman, would create the crime of aggravated hazing that could be used in cases of serious bodily injury or death.
Aggravated hazing would be a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The existing hazing law only carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison.
Ryan Burke, the only fraternity member sentenced in the case, thus far, didn’t get any jail time. He pleaded guilty to hazing charges and was sentenced in July to three months house arrest, followed by 27 months of probation, court records show.
The law would also create a charge of organizational hazing that could be used to prosecute fraternities and would allow prosecutors to seek financial penalties against the organization.
Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the state prosecutors’ group supports Corman’s hazing rewrite.
Long said he has not done an analysis to determine if the revision would have made a difference in the Beta Theta Pi case. He added though that the legislation does provide for “better fitting” definitions of hazing for prosecutors to use in court.
Only six states don’t have hazing bans on the books – Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to hazingprevention.org, a website focused on the issue.
Corman said that if enacted, he believes Pennsylvania will have “the most comprehensive anti-hazing law” in the country.
He said he has no plan hold up Senate votes on pending bills from the House in order to get members of the other chamber to consider the hazing bill.
“No one has articulated any opposition,” he said. “I’m not bargaining. It’s a good piece of legislation.”