Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: How Justice System Manufactures "Criminals"

Although people are more easily outraged by criminals who evade the law, the Korean is more outraged at the criminal justice system that makes innocent people criminals. Here is a great example of that.

(By the way, this has nothing to do with Korea, just in case you didn't notice.)

The case is Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Hart, and this is what happened. In 2007, Mr. Hart, a 35-year-old part-time college student, was driving around when he saw two middle school kids walking in the rain, carrying heavy backpacks. The college student asked them if they wanted a ride, and they declined. Then the middle school kids took the guy's license plate and called the police. The college student turned himself in, and was convicted of attempting to "lure a child into motor vehicle," which is a criminal offense in Pennsylvania. He avoided jail time by getting 18-month probation, but got listed on a sex offender registry because of his conviction.

That alone is ridiculous enough, but just as ridiculous is the description of a case from Pennsylvania Superior Court that that the State used in support of its position, called Commonwealth v. Figueroa:
In Figueroa, three children were walking on the sidewalk in single-file to their bus stop on the morning after a heavy snowstorm when the defendant pulled out from the driveway of the children’s neighbor, drove up alongside the last girl in line, and asked if she would like a ride to school, whereupon she refused. The defendant then pulled his car forward and asked the first girl in line if she would like a ride to school, and she too declined. After these refusals, the defendant entered another nearby driveway, turned around, and headed in the opposite direction from which the children were walking.
For the trouble of offering a ride to children after a heavy snowstorm, the defendant in Figueroa is now a convicted criminal listed on the sex offender registry.

Luckily, Mr. Hart fared better -- the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. But it took him four years to get through the court system and vindicate the idea that offering a ride does not amount to a sex offense against minors. (For more information how ridiculously harsh and unjust sex offender registry is, take a look at this Economist article.)

There is a way out of this madness. As democratic citizens, it is incumbent on all of us that we do not get blinded by the sweet appeal of "getting tough on crime." Truth is, we are already pretty damn tough on crime. Whenever there is a proposal for a new crime, we should demand our leaders to think not about what criminals the law will catch, but what innocent acts will be rendered as criminal.

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