Berks judge: Criminal justice system needs fixing

WYOMISSING, Pa. - Our criminal justice system is broken. That's the message Berks County Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher shared with a group of about 40 people at a World Affairs Council of Greater Reading presentation at the Wyomissing Family Restaurant on Friday.

"People who are in-the-know, know what needs to be done and are not willing to do it," Sprecher said.

Legislatures need to show that they are not soft on crime to be elected, so they became tough on crime and waged war on drugs, but it isn't working, according to Sprecher. He said mandatory minimum sentencing has put control of sentencing in the legislative and executive branches, rather than the judges, so the wrong people are often being imprisoned, creating overcrowded prisons that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

He said, today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 670 per 100,000 people are incarcerated in the U.S., up from approximately 110 per 100,000 from 1920 to 1970.

"In 1982, we began the greatest prison construction epidemic in the history of Pennsylvania," he said.

In 1982, there were nine prisons in Pennsylvania. Between 1984 and 1998, the state built 16 new prisons, more than the previous 150 years. In 1980, Pennsylvania spent $94 million to operate its prison system; today, it spends $2.5 billion. In 1984, there were 34,000 people serving life sentences; in 2016, there were 161,957. More people were sent to state prison for drugs than for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault combined.

"We are all suffering financially, of course," Sprecher said.

But specific groups are also being targeted. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has been increasing at a 50-percent higher rate than men because more women are inadvertently involved in drug transactions. He said youth living with both parents have a 10-percent chance of being institutionalized; whereas, youth living with one or no parents have a 50-percent chance.

Today, most states, including Pennsylvania, do not allow parole to prisoners serving life sentences. Sprecher said he sentenced 18- or 19-year-old offenders to life in prison without any chance of parole. He said many of those prisoners have changed, but they continue to have no hope of ever getting out of jail. Many of the people serving life sentences are elderly and in prison nursing homes. Many prisoners have mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug or alcohol problems.

"Our prison system is becoming a health care system, especially for older people," Sprecher said.

Sprecher said he believes many of the problems began in 1982 with the formation of the United States Sentencing Commission and its creation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. He said mandatory minimum sentencing takes sentencing out of the hands of judges and places it with the district attorneys and legislatures, so judges no longer have judicial discretion in unique cases where a lower sentence may be appropriate.

He gave the example of an 18-year-old pregnant woman who was caught in a $20 drug transaction. It was her first offense. Because the transaction occurred within 1,000 feet of a school, the mandatory minimum sentence at the time was two to four years, regardless of the circumstances.

"I had the pleasure of putting this young lady away, separating her from her very young child for two to four years, and I had no choice in that," Sprecher said.

The judge pointed out that most people living in the city are within 1,000 feet of a school, unlike suburban and rural areas, which means the minimum mandatory sentencing "really picks on the people in the city."

Sprecher said in 2015, for the first time in history, the federal government released 6,000 low-level drug offenders from federal prison.

"My argument is we judges didn't put them in – we did, but it was pre-determined – and now we don't determine when they leave either," Sprecher said.

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