Mandatory criminal sentencings controlled largely by state legislators and county district attorney's offices have caused skyrocketing prison populations and corrections
budgets while taking authority away from judges, according to Berks County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher.
Sprecher, who has served more than 20 years on the bench, was in Williamsport Wednesday discussing his new book "Justice or Just This: A Constitutional Trespass" with members of the Lycoming Law Association. The book spells out his reasoning why judges' hands are tied when it comes to sentencing.
He says the system is tipped in one direction that violates the separation of powers that is supposed to be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
"Politicians in the executive and legislative branches for the last 30 to 40 years have taken sentencing authority from judges by passing mandatory minimum sentence laws and creating the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The effect on the system has been disastrous," Sprecher writes in his book.
The judge says the majority of inmates in state prison are nonviolent and are serving longer sentences than they should.
That has caused a prison population and construction boom, and with that more expense thrown at the state corrections budget, he says.
Between 1940 and 1980, the state prison population remained level at about 7,500. The state Commission on Sentencing was formed in 1982 and a year later the state Legislature approved construction of sixteen new prisons.
Calling it the "greatest prison construction epidemic in the state of Pennsylvania," Sprecher said the state prison population will exceed 61,000 by the end of next year with a budget of more than $2 billion.
Sprecher said lawmakers supported tough stances on crime to win votes. He said they understand the problem, but won't do anything about it because they'll be voted out of office.
"All of this has created an out-of-control monster where more people are sentenced to state prisons for non-violent offenses (especially drugs) than for all the violent crimes of murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and arson combined," he writes in his book.
"Someone other than judges is doing the sentencing. In other words, to appear tough on crime, the Legislature has passed unjust and needlessly excessive sentencing laws," he writes. "Illogically, numerous mandatory minimum sentencing laws allow the local district attorney to tell the judges how to sentence."
Sprecher says the war on drugs has hurt families, especially in his hometown of Reading, which was named the poorest city in America, based on U.S. Census data.
"Have we won the war on drugs?" he asked.
Women also have been negatively affected by mandatory minimum sentences, with 12 times as many in prison now compared to 30 years ago, he said.
Sprecher argues that judges are the last ones to have a say in sentencing, and by that time their role already is diminished by district attorneys and state-mandated guidelines.
He said he doesn't think the Founding Fathers would have liked legislators or district attorneys deciding sentences.
"I don't want to change everything," Sprecher said. "I just want to put it back where it was."