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A former Pennsylvania state house representative who was a champion of prison and social reform died Nov. 7 at his Susquehanna Twp. home.

Joseph Rhodes Jr., 66, formerly of Pittsburgh, served three terms as Democratic representative for the 24th District (Allegheny County), starting in 1973. He was the youngest African-American elected to the house.

His interest in prison reform was sparked by seeing juveniles housed with adult criminals at the State Correctional Institution in Camp Hill, said his former wife, Dr. Linda Rhodes. He sponsored legislation in 1977 that amended the Juvenile Justice Act, which diverted status offenders from the juvenile justice system and made it unlawful to hold juveniles in adult jails. He considered passage of Act 41 as his greatest achievement during his three-terms as a lawmaker, Linda Rhodes said. In all, he marshaled passage of nine bills.

He was an advocate of elderly residents of boarding homes, and introduced several bills to license and raise the standards of such facilities.

In an interview for the state House’s Oral History Project in 2008, Rhodes said this about his contributions to the legislative process: “I had a good public life. I got a chance to serve the people. There’s no greater joy than that. I did my duty.”

His legacy, said state Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, is “putting people first.”

Evans said he worked with Rhodes when he was a consultant for the PUC. “He was a real strong consumer advocate. That was basically how he operated and he functioned,” he said.

Evans, who was elected in 1980, said Rhodes “set the tone” for legislators like himself. “He was looking out for the people who couldn’t look out for themselves,” Evans said.

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