Berks County judge calls for criminal justice, prison reform

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website.
This is the second story in a series looking at prison reform in the United States, especially in Pennsylvania and local counties, and the impact of Norway’s Correctional System.
Berks County Court of Common Appeals Judge Jeffrey Sprecher speaks at the annual luncheon for the League of Women Voters of Chester County about criminal justice reform on Tuesday in West Chester. (Candice Monhollan)

Berks County Court of Common Appeals Judge Jeffrey Sprecher speaks at the annual luncheon for the League of Women Voters of Chester County about criminal justice reform on Tuesday in West Chester. (Candice Monhollan)

WEST CHESTER — Judge Jeffrey Sprecher knows something has to change in the criminal justice and prison system in the United States.

It could not be more apparent than when he visited Graterford Prison in Montgomery County and heard something which has stuck with him.

“’Why is there no hope for us?”

“(He) knows (he) did a terrible thing when (he) was 18 or 20 years old, but there’s no hope,” Spechler said.

The inmate said he took advantage of the different things the prison had to offer them and he has become an entirely different person, but it won’t make a difference because he’ll never leave the prison until he’s buried six-feet under.

Sitting behind the bench in the courtroom, Sprecher has seen the criminal justice system in the United States at work.

He is judge in the Berks County Court of Common Pleas and has had over 20 years of experience in the courtroom and is appalled at how people are given sentences.

…[Please continue the story on the Daily Local News website by clicking here.]

“I couldn’t believe 25 years ago when I was elected that as a judge, I don’t really control all the sentencing,” Sprecher said. “That’s a shock, I’m sure. I don’t control the sentencing because think tanks came up with these great ideas and applied them all over the country and one of them is mandatory minimum sentences.”

Mandatory minimum sentences limit the discretion of a judge because people who are convicted of certain crimes have to be punished with at least a minimum number of years laid out in the law.

“That had a huge impact on the criminal justice system,” Sprecher said. “Even more significant than anything else is the creating of a sentencing commission.”

The sentencing commission is a panel of 11 people which establishes sentencing policies and practices and gives scores to give prior criminal offenses and to give to current criminal offenses.

“Among (judges) you can find problem sentences, so (they) were going to make all judges’ sentences the same,” Sprecher said. “That really sounded great, but it doesn’t work that way. I can’t figure out for the life of me, why can prosecutors control sentencing and why the sentencing commission can control sentencing?”

As Sprecher has pointed out to the League of Women Voters of Chester County at its annual luncheon on Tuesday, both the prisons and criminal justice system needs a look.

“We have many issues that we need to deal with,” he said. “I could teach a course on this. The most important thing and the thing I am driven by the most is how the sentencing laws have changed.”

After the implementation of the mandatory minimum sentencing and the creation of the sentencing commission, prison populations have exploded.

According to Sprecher, from 1925 to 1980, the United States experienced a 105-percent increase in prisoners.

After mandatory minimum sentencing was passed, however, the period of time from 1980 to 2010 saw a 750-percent increase in prisoners.

In Pennsylvania, prisons had no increase in population in a 40-year span from 1940 to 1980, but in the 30 years after, the commonwealth’s prisons increased 700 percent.

“It has gotten completely out of hand,” Sprecher said. “We’re the only industrialized nation that has dealt with the rising crime rate we had 30 years ago, 40 years ago, with mass incarceration. The other countries have not and what have we accomplished with it? We have certainly gone backwards.”

Sprecher does realize that any kind of change to the system won’t be easy to come by, nor would it be quick.

“It’s not simple,” he said. “If it were simple, I guess we wouldn’t have what we have.”

The League of Women Voters has funded a study into criminal justice and found some startling facts.

The study showed that prison conditions are deteriorating with an overuse of solitary confinement with 80,000 prisoners currently locked away in abandonment. The prisons also are rampant with sexual violence.

In the last 15 years, only six people have had life sentences commuted, while studies have shown former prisoners over the age of 50 only have a 2-percent crime rate and those over 65 are almost at zero. Meanwhile, the cost for a sick, elderly prisoner could cost roughly $185,000 per year in Pennsylvania.

Despite the fact that multiple studies done have shown there is little, if any, deterrent value in having mandatory minimum sentencing in Pennsylvania, no national lawmakers have stepped forward to push for the change.

“We have to look at a different way of doing things entirely,” Sprecher said. “It just doesn’t make any sense for people to be locked up for the rest of their life and never go out except feet-first. That just doesn’t make any sense for a society to be ordering that, compelling that. We just need to rethink these things. This is not working – there is no question.”

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Categories: Community, Crime, Federal Government, Government, Local Government

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