Geography’s role in Criminal Justice

  • Steve Jarmon,
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Whether a person is charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI), Simple Assault, Burglary, Theft, Firearms or Drug Offenses, they ultimately want to know how the charges they are facing will affect their life. The answer to that question depends on multiple factors, but none more important than the geographic location the crime occurred.

Most people are aware and accept that laws vary from state to state, but what most people don’t realize is that within each state, the laws can be enforced in drastically different ways. This is particularly true in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where there are 67 counties headed by 67 District Attorneys, each of whom have wide latitude to enforce the laws in a way they see fit. One particular District Attorney’s Office may seek harsher penalties for crimes committed in their county then a neighboring county’s District Attorney may seek.

ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) is a diversionary program offered for first time offenders throughout Pennsylvania that allows a person to do community service and other programs in exchange for a dismissal of the charges. While ARD is allowed by state statute, each District Attorney is allowed to set the parameters for what crimes they will accept for the ARD program and dictate what conditions must be met before the charges are dismissed. Some DAs may allow a person who has committed a crime of violence ( Assault, Burglary etc.) entry into a program while other DA’s may limit entry to first time Driving Under the Influence (DUI) offenses.

In some cases, the county where the arrest occurred may have certain rules and procedures in place that could be a benefit or a detriment to someone arrested for a crime. For instance, someone arrested for a 2nd DUI with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is .16 or higher is facing a state mandated minimum sentence of 90 days of incarceration. Each county is allowed to set criteria for how that 90 days will be served. For example, in Chester County it is possible to have the 90 day sentence broken down into 15 days of actual jail time and 75 days of house arrest with permission to leave the house for work or school. If a person’s arrest occurred in neighboring Lancaster County, it would only be possible to have the 90 days broken down to 45 days of actual jail and 45 days of house arrest. Bucks County may even allow a person to do the entire 90 days on house arrest. The same crime netting a person 45 more days of jail in one county compared to another. This additional 45 days could mean the difference in keeping their job or losing their job and having to start all over.

Does this lack of uniformity in the Pennsylvania Justice System seem fair and appropriate? Should two people charged with the same crime who happen to be in different counties get drastically different sentences? As with most issues, it is open to debate.

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