James Berardinelli, a Philadelphia lawyer for more than two decades, is running for a judgeship on the Court of Common Pleas. (Photo courtesy of Berardinelli for Judge)

by Samuel Newhouse

After practicing law in Philadelphia for more than two decades, James Berardinelli has seen some big issues with the criminal justice system, such as how many defendants have untreated mental health issues, including some 80% of his clients in homicide cases, he estimated.

Now running for judge, Berardinelli hopes to help address this problem from the bench.

“Far too many of my homicide clients are suffering from mental illness, but despite multiple contacts with the system, haven’t been diagnosed,” Berardinelli said. “I want to start to order full psychiatric evaluations of low-level offenders, in particular gun offenders, in the hopes that we start to catch these issues early on, and we can save some lives.”

Berardinelli, a Chestnut Hill resident who is currently running for judge on the Court of Common Pleas, noted that his clients have had issues ranging from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and impulse control disorder to PTSD and early childhood traumas – all of which, science and research have shown, can cause people to react aggressively or violently to stress.

“Untreated mental illness is probably the number one driver of violent crime in Philadelphia,” he said. “When you look at the cost of ordering more intensive psychiatric evaluations for lower level offenders, that is something that pales in comparison to the cost of trying a homicide, or having to house someone in jail for the rest of their lives.”

Berardinelli, 50, a Democrat, said this issue fits in with his overall philosophy of fairly applying the law as a jurist. He said a judge must be “very fair to both sides but know the law.”

Judicial elections in Philadelphia are typically crowded affairs with little name recognition. This year, 25 candidates are running for six open seats on the Court of Common Pleas. (Two candidates are running for one seat on the Municipal Court.) The Philadelphia Bar Association Judicial Commission rated Berardinelli as “recommended.” He previously ran unsuccessfully for a judgeship in 2015.

After attending Juniata College and graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Berardinelli got his start as a clerk to state Supreme Court justice Frank J. Montemuro.

“Justice Montemuro was probably my biggest mentor in terms of how judges should conduct themselves,” he said. “What always struck me about him was even though he had all that power, he treated everyone he came in contact with from the cleaning lady to his fellow justices with respect and dignity.”

Berardinelli first started heading in the direction of law as a youngster, when he picked the field for an eighth-grade report on what he wanted to be.

“My dad is a retired pediatrician, my mom was a chemistry teacher. They both came from science backgrounds, so I guess maybe seeing how hard they worked scared us off a little bit, although the law isn’t any easier,” he recalled. “I liked to read and debate, and intellectual discourse and thinking things out, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

As a prosecutor with the Philly DA’s office for 17 years, Berardinelli worked in special investigations – the public corruption unit – and homicides, before making the switch to a defense attorney seven years ago.

Overall, he said that criminal justice system “has some fundamental flaws” – such as implicit bias, the lack of mental health treatment and cash bail, which Philly’s reform-minded DA Larry Krasner is moving to curb in Philadelphia.

But as a judge, his top priority overall would be utilizing his experience on both the prosecutorial and defense sides to fairly apply the law, he said.

When he’s not practicing law, Berardinelli said his favorite place to spend time is the Wissahickon. He and his wife both volunteer with Friends of the Wissahickon and Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers.

“It’s really beautiful down there, even more than any other part of Fairmount Park. It’s really inspiring,” he said. He also said he loves Chestnut Hill, the neighborhood where he’s resided for the last 12 years. “It’s like being in a little town even though you’re in the big city.”

Berardinelli will be on the ballot at button number 25 in the May 21 primary. To learn more, visit jfbforjudge.org

Samuel Newhouse is a freelance writer who lives in Germantown.