Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Seventeen Years Later, The Problem Is Far Worse...Why Does History Repeat Itself?: Part II

So what did our symposium accomplish? It shed light on the fact that all futile attempts have not worked. Disbanding the sentencing commission and repealing mandatory minimum sentencing stand as the two logical solutions to slaying the monster, but legislators are afraid to vote for this reform. In other words, their “buck passing” efforts to find another approach at reform have put taxpayers and citizens in a worse position today than 17 years ago!

            What is keeping legislators from embracing real change?

Last week, when I wrote and published Part I in the blog, it was exactly 17 years after the Reading Eagle published my op-ed piece in March 1997. The subject of the viewpoint was prison overcrowding caused by removing sentencing discretion from the judiciary. In 1982, when the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing was created in Pennsylvania, the legislator’s own study from the previous year concluded that the length of sentences in the state would double as a result of the commission’s implementation! Guess what? That’s what happened.  In fact, Pennsylvania’s state penitentiary population tripled in just 15 years between 1982 and 1997 when it had not even increased in the 40 years before 1980.

The state’s department of corrections prison population showed no increase whatsoever in state prison population between 1940 and 1980. Each year it averaged 7,000 inmates. Today it is seven times greater than it was in 1980. What caused these distressing results?

Only two years after the 1982 effective date for the commission to begin its work, Pennsylvania began the greatest new prison construction epidemic in its history, opening 16 new prisons in the 14 years beginning, ironically, in 1984. The keystone state had only a total of 11 prisons in its history prior to 1984!

            The April 5, 1997 symposium was held at Albright College. It was attended by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the very same Senate Judiciary Committee which just finished its study of prison overcrowding and alternative sentencing. Sen. Greenleaf, a republican from Montgomery County, is the longest serving Pennsylvania senator to date. Tom Caltigerone, a Berks County democrat, was present as well, as was Berks County state senator, the late  Michael A. O’Pake. Today, Tom is the longest serving Pennsylvania representative in the house. He, along with Sen. Greenleaf speak often to voters and colleagues about this problem and the need for alternative punishments, which are the same solutions I endorse. But the opposite of alternative punishment is 1) mandatory minimum sentencing, where judges have no discretion and 2) the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which, because of direct and indirect pressure,  motivates judges to follow the guidelines. Pennsylvania judges sentence consistent with the guidelines and recommendations of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing in 90 percent of all sentences. The commission’s guidelines have become gospel.

            Until we eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing and the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, this problem will continue to get worse.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Seventeen Years Later, The Problem Is Far Worse…Why Does History Repeat Itself?: Part I

            Editor’s note: The following was written in conjunction with preparations for a communitywide symposium on criminal justice to be held at Albright College on April 5, 1997. The symposium garnered 25 different community sponsors supporting the study and intelligent discussion of mandatory sentencing, overcrowded prisons and the increased costs of housing the inmates.

Prioritizing prison outcomes requires wisdom of Solomon (published 3-20-97, Reading Eagle)

By Jeffrey K. Sprecher

Justice has always been rich in symbolism. We see the scales of justice and know that facts are weighed carefully, one against the other, until the right course emerges. We read the biblical account of King Solomon and learn the importance of seeing beyond superficial motivations.

            In fairness, it takes the wisdom of Solomon to understand some of the logic of our current criminal justice system. Consider the contradictions inherent in these statistics: Despite the addition of 10,000 beds in recent years, our state prisons currently are operating at 154 percent capacity.

            Two out of three state inmates are classified as nonviolent, yet they are housed, at great cost to the taxpayers who have already been victimized by their criminal conduct, behind thick concrete walls and steel bars.

            Sentencing policies aimed at punishing drug kingpins have resulted in a torrent of users and low-level operatives filling limited state prison cells while drug sales continue to flourish in both urban and rural areas.

            Last summer, the state Senate Judiciary Committee completed a study on prison overcrowding and alternative sentencing. In reporting its recommendations, the committee noted that prison overcrowding rarely evokes a sympathetic public response, but with state spending nearing the $1 billion-a-year mark, the issue needs to be addressed.

            Criminal justice issues are especially difficult for elected officials. By taking the sensible approach to policies that enhance public safety – instead of vengeance – these lawmakers run the risk of being branded soft on crime. So, it was a bold and courageous move for the committee to recommend items such as expanded use of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, drug treatment as a sanctioning tool for abusers, and restoration of judicial discretion in sentencing offenders who currently warrant mandatory minimum terms.

            These are all steps in the right direction. Overwhelmingly, it seems past policies were shrouded in myths: Put more people in prison and the crime rate will come down; make sentences longer and criminals will be deterred; build more prisons and the public will feel safer. Taxpayers have paid dearly to implement these policies and have seen none of the promised results.

            The violent crime rate in Pennsylvania has been relatively constant for the past 50 years, virtually unaffected by the tripling of the prison population over the last 15 years. And, still, opinion research tells us that the public feels unsafe – a perception that seems to stand apart from the statistics.

            We, as citizens, need to take the time to examine the trade-offs in this issue. We probably all want the system to punish, deter, rehabilitate, incapacitate, restore both victims and communities, save money and more. We need to prioritize those outcomes because every one of them comes at the expense of another.

            Then we can be in a position to appreciate the wisdom of committee chairman Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who concluded, “If we take the initiative to set up a systematic program of review and supervision through alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent state-level offenders, we will have the assurance of control and, ultimately, public safety.

            “Expensive prison space must be held for those who are truly violent and career criminals. This problem has transcended party lines and social ideologies; it is a matter of practicality and fiscal responsibility.”

            The weight of this logic clearly tips the scales toward Solomonesque reforms that are at once tough and smart. I implore the careful study of this timely issue.

            Jeffrey K. Sprecher is a Judge of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas. (3-20-97)

Dr. David McFarland, president of Kutztown University, put it simply when he asked: why are we spending more money on prisons than college education? It is apparent that the issues of the past 17 years have not disappeared, but have actually become worse today. For instance, state spending of $1 million for the annual prison budget that I referenced in the article has climbed to a staggering $2 billion being spent per year today. 
            What a dilemma. The symposium was held because even elected officials acknowledge that the justice system was in need of repair. After all, the United States incarcerates more people at a higher rate than any other country on earth! We must continue to identify the causes of the problem and offer solutions; however, law makers must no longer be afraid to implement the needed changes – disbanding the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and repealing the mandatory minimum sentencing laws – because their opponents will accuse them of being soft on crime. The problem has been identified and its solution suggested, but they refuse to implement the reforms that will truly make a difference. The monster continues to grow uncontrollably; new prisons are built to house the influx of inmates who have increasingly longer sentences to serve. Ten thousand new beds were added and the system still operated at 154% capacity, noted the state senate judiciary committee’s study. Which was published less than a year before our symposium in 1997. The monster remains on the loose.

            So what did our symposium accomplish? It shed light on the fact that all futile attempts have not worked. Disbanding the sentencing commission and repealing mandatory minimum sentencing stand as the two logical solutions to slaying the monster, but legislators are afraid to vote for this reform. In other words, their “buck passing” efforts to find another approach at reform have put taxpayers and citizens in a worse position today than 17 years ago!

            What is keeping legislators from embracing real change?

            Next week in Part II, a reminder of the effectiveness of the symposium.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Have We Won The War On Drugs?

With a 43 year long war on drugs, one would think the United States has exceeded its goal in decreasing illegal narcotic activity in the country. The answer is no, despite a trillion dollars spent and the arrest of a hundred million citizens. In fact, the drug problem is worse today. One example that succinctly proves this fact is heroin.

Officials right to crack down on prescription painkillers

(published in The Washington Post on 3-15-14)

“…At the same time, there is a key difference between this heroin epidemic and previous ones, as [U.S. Attorney General] Holder noted: It is related to the abuse of chemically similar legal drugs, prescription opioids, whose use, both legitimate and illicit, has exploded in recent years. Properly administered, these painkilling drugs can bring patients necessary relief. Diverted to unintended and unauthorized use, as they too often are, these highly addictive drugs function, in many cases, as a gateway drug to heroin.”

“…The reason, experts on addiction note, is that heroin already was cheaper and more accessible than prescription medicines.

The government’s crackdown, such as it has been, did not prevent doctors from writing an estimated 241 million prescriptions for opioids in 2012, which was down 2 million from 2011 but still 97 million more than in 2002, according to data from IMS Health that first were reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.”


Painkillers and Heroin: Which drug is more prevalent and affordable?

            In mid-March 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in his weekly video, warned of an urgent and growing public health crisis. The abuse of legal painkillers, categorized as prescription opiates, can lead to the use and addiction to heroin. How? States and the federal government have recently prioritized the war on opioid abuse. This has led to the reduced supply of pain killers, forcing addicts to seek other medication; and as I’ve written previously, heroin is a poor man’s pain killer. The rising death rate for heroin abuse, both locally and throughout the country, sadly has been rising. Thats not very good evidence of us winning any war on drugs.

Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?

In the March 2014 edition of the American Bar Association Journal, these disturbing statistics appeared. As of 2012, in the United States of America:

1)     3,278 people were serving life sentences without parole.

2)     79% (2,586) were sentenced for non-violent, drug-related crimes.

3)     20% (656) were convicted of non-violent property offenses

Ethnicities of 3,278 non-violent lifers

·       65% (2,131) are African American

·       18% (584) are Caucasian

·       16% (524) are Latino or Hispanic

From: A Living Death: Life Without Parole For Non-violent Offenses, American Civil Liberties Union, 2013 (November).

            Does it make the numbers far worse when you ponder the following question? How many of the 3,278 human beings sentenced to life without parole were sentenced by a judge whose hands were tied by a mandatory minimum sentence or sentencing guidelines from which he/she did not think he could or should deviate?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Guns: Chicago 2012 - 3,066 shootings, 503 murders

In 2012, the city of Chicago led the nation in recorded homicides. Please pause for a moment and ponder these numbers – 3,066 shootings and 503 murders in 365 days. These stifling figures constitute an average of nearly 10 shootings and 1.5 murders per day. It is also worth noting that these are the incidents reported to the police.
With that many documented shootings, the number of murders could easily have doubled since every shooting is potentially fatal – even those intended only to deliver a message or warning. Of the two or three dozen murder trials I have handled in 22 years, a gun was used as the murder weapon in almost every case. Sadly, many people carry a gun today, especially in the city. I have repeatedly heard the people arrested for gun possession explain to me in court that because of the abundance of firearms on the street, they need it for their own protection. My on the job experience bears this out. Everybody has a gun.
            Please ponder a second question: How many times have you lost your temper in life? Anger has probably enabled you on one or more occasions to have the requisite intent necessary to exhibit the motive, ill will or intense passion that has revealed itself many times in homicide cases. At this point, there is only one contributing circumstance needed to move from intent to completion. How do alcohol, drugs and mental health issues increase the risk of violent action? How about intense and continuous stress, friends or acquaintances with a hair trigger temper or a propensity for violence – what affect do they have on the final result. Simply the wrong people, places and circumstances – these are the factors that spur violence.
            I am not addressing the person who plans and “lies in wait” to take a life. Premeditation[1] or intent can arise in an instant; it doesn’t have to be intended, at least for a specific period of time. [2]
            My aim is to bring attention to the great number of murders committed under unplanned circumstances - an argument with a spouse, relative or even a stranger that gets out of hand. In regards to intimate relationships, how close does a person who is going through a divorce or separation get to have the requisite intent to kill? I learned long ago that love and hate are deeply rooted emotions, but that they are often not found on opposite ends of the continuum. They are not polar opposites, but exist next to one another. There are times when they join forces, making it difficult to tell the two apart. “Was that one love? Was this one hate?”
In the annals of mankind, you don’t hate a stranger who you don’t at least know by personal experience or by reputation, stereotype, perception or fear. The worst crimes in history have taken place during civil wars, acts of genocide, religious differences, racial prejudice, ethnic cleansing and wars with neighbors who hate each other. People with knowledge of these things teach us directly, as well as indirectly, who to fear. The media in all its forms contributes greatly to our perception of those people – those who are different from us. We quickly learn who to be careful around and who to avoid.
 My point can be concluded with the fact that the criminal homicide laws in Pennsylvania have five different levels or degrees of murder, and only first degree includes the premeditated intent to kill. Second degree murder encompasses killings that happen during a felony, like a burglary, robbery or rape. There is no premeditated intent to kill; but the crime went terribly awry and resulted in murder. The third category includes all other forms of killing, where there were no other crimes committed and there is no evidence of pre-meditation. Voluntary homicide is the fourth category. It also excludes the intent of malice, and is not felony murder. In fact, it is not even considered murder. It is defined by acting under intense provocation or being blinded by rage. Involuntary manslaughter, which is the fifth category, is also not considered a felony murder under law. It is distinguished from manslaughter because it is not committed by blind rage or intense provocation. It is a crime of criminal negligence such as dumping a load of stones at a construction site without looking to see if anyone is in the path of danger.
There are also many examples where shootings have occurred over trivial things - fighting over a parking space, being cut off in traffic or other forms of road rage. In addition to the wrong people, places and circumstances one is confronted with, timing is also a factor in this issue. [3]
It seems logical that if there were not so many hand guns available, these conflicts might not be so quickly resolved with finality. These resolutions with a gun involved are usually final. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can as a society cut the finality of the tragedy by striving to prevent the availability of the deadly weapon. Then perhaps a cooling off time will be in place in which case the potential killing might be avoided and the whole incident be a warning to take positive action as an alternative to violence.

[1] Two young friends went to a night club. One cheated in line ahead of the rest. The guy in line, for some bizarre reason, got “goosed” by the man behind him. He told his friend, who immediately walked back to his car, got his gun, returned and shot the “gooser.” Fortunately the victim lived. This was an actual case before me.
[2] I recently read this on the internet: “I don’t like making plans for the day because then the word “premeditated” gets thrown around the courtroom. (from
[3] Consider the man walking down the street in the middle of the night when he is approached by another man. The first person became a defendant because he used a knife to fight off the aggressor. He countered the momentum of the intruder with deadly force, however he could have greatly reduced or eliminated the likelihood of such a confrontation even happening by walking on the same street at 3 p.m. instead of 3 a.m.  Was he looking for trouble by walking around that time of day with a knife? He claimed he wasn’t looking for trouble, but wanted to be protected if needed. It is a matter of freedom versus responsibility to avoid dangerous and risky people, places, things and times of day or night.