Are too many plea bargains being made in Bradford County?
There's an article on today's front page about a sexual assault case against a man with a mental disability in Canton. Three men were originally sentenced to rape, which is a felony, and finally, when all was said and done, a year and a half later, pleaded down to a misdemeanor. One of the men has since passed away, the other two, Jared Strunk and Randy Foust, are serving time behind bars - from six months to almost two years to be exact. But is that enough? A LeRoy man, Ned Whitehead, who works as an advocate for those with special needs, who is close to this case, doesn't think so.
He and the victim's mom, Becky Spencer, think the plea bargaining was wrong.
Local law enforcement officials, as well as many local residents, are agreeing with Mr. Whitehead and Ms. Spencer. They feel the District Attorney is offering too many plea agreements and letting too many who are breaking the law, off too easily.
For instance, a Rome man was sentenced last year to a minimum of 14 months with a maximum of five years in state prison, for calling in two bomb threats to the Bradford County Courthouse. He had pleaded guilty to the third-degree felony of terroristic threats for making the bomb threats.
As part of his plea agreement with the Commonwealth, the other serious charge that had been lodged against him, threat to use weapons of mass destruction, was dismissed. According to Pennsylvania law, if a threat causes the occupants of a building to be diverted from their normal or customary operations, the weapons charge could have been an added felony of the third degree.
The man had prior convictions for burglary, simple assault and unlawful restraint, unlawful firearm possession, DUI and was also convicted of some PFA violations. Following this most recent sentencing in March of 2013, he could be back out of jail any time now.
A second example, last year a plea agreement was struck between the Bradford County DA's office and a Gillett man. Under the agreement, he pleaded guilty to the summary offense of harassment and was required to resign his position as an elected official. As part of the agreement, the District Attorney's Office withdrew a series of misdemeanor charges that had been lodged against him. Related felony charges had been withdrawn by the D.A.'s office in 2012. So, what started as serious, sex-related felony charges were pleaded down to a summary misdemeanor.
At the time, District Attorney Dan Barrett said his decision to enter into the plea agreement was based on problems with the evidence and concerns about the availability of witnesses if the case went to trial. Mr. Barrett added, "Unfortunately, the weight of our case load is such that we have to be very careful as to which cases we spend our resources on." His points are good ones, but Bradford County Sheriff C.J. Walters says the plea bargaining is becoming way too rampant. He, and others in local law enforcement, are citing numerous cases from the last couple years - cases of rape, sexual harassment and drug use to name just a few, where severe charges are being pleaded way down and criminals are ending up back on the streets instead of spending significant time in jail.
When is it too many? What can be done differently? The Review is investigating. Stay tuned.