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Punishments Don't Fit the Crime: In Pennsylvania, It Costs $2 for 'Access to Justice,' (But You Still Might Not Get It)

 
There is a basic concept when it comes to justice that the punishment should fit the crime. It’s a concept that in Law-and-Order America has long vanished. Some states, like California, have done this with brutish “Three-Strikes-You’re-Out” policies that have ended up sentencing young men to life in prison for something like stealing a video, because it was the perpetrator’s third crime. Others, like Florida, have done it by sentencing a pre-teen kid to life in prison for a killing because he was tried as an adult.

The mentality that does these things also operates at a lower level, before sentencing, and involves police who over-react, and over-charge people for minor violations. I was talking to a black man recently who spent four years in prison in Pennsylvania for throwing a brick through a window. “I was drunk,” he says, “and so I tossed the brick, which was stupid, but the police called that a burglary attempt, and so I got four years.”

My own experience with this mentality came with two traffic tickets involving my son. They might seem minor in comparison, but they still speak to this mentality.

The first happened earlier this year in my suburban community of Upper Dublin, PA. Jed and I were in the car early in the morning, headed for an appointment in Philadelphia. Jed, only 17, was driving for the first time in early morning and had never had the experience of driving past a school during the “flashing school zone” period, when cars had to go 15 miles per hour. A careful driver, he was obeying the law meticulously as we passed the town’s high school and elementary school. Then, just past the elementary school, at the intersection where we had to turn to go a few hundred feet to the entrance to a divided highway, Jed made the turn and began accelerating towards the ramp entrance.

I immediately spotted a black unmarked police car parked deceptively on the side of the road, but before I could even tell Jed to slow down, it took off behind us, lights flashing.

Busted!
Jed LindorffJed Lindorff

I told Jed to pull over, because there was a cop behind him. He asked innocently what he had done, and I said he had been speeding.

“But I was going 35 mph -- the speed limit!,” he protested.

The problem was, of course, that the school zone extended around the corner, as a tiny sign 100 feet down the street saying “End School Zone” indicated belatedly.

So the cop, an Upper Dublin Police officer, came up to the window, and, after checking Jed’s license and our car’s registration, handed him a ticket for going 20 mph over the speed limit in a school zone -- a serious offense that threatened to raise his insurance rates prohibitively for years to come.

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