Bicycle Blues at the College of Charleston

Holy City Beat | Daniel Miles | March 24, 2016

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Somewhere in the farther reaches of my mind, strewn throughout the seemingly endless list of things floating around (including, but not limited to, a stream of Onion articles, obscure cinema facts and embarrassing things that happened to me between third and sixth grade), there is a comprehensive list of things I do not have. High up on the list is a car, a clue, or $113 to pay for a ticket given to me by College of Charleston Public Safety for biking the wrong way down a one way road.

I live in Craig Hall on St. Philip Street, a one way street going away from the main destinations of campus: classes, friends, what have you. I park my bike directly across the street from Craig, in St. Philip’s Street garage. Since it is usually in my best interest to move relatively quickly, without having to take a four to five minute detour on a trip that should be no more than two-three minutes, I like to pull a little clandestine shuffle on my bike to the nearby George Street. As always, I have my lights on when appropriate, use the turn signals required of me and act with decency and responsibility as any entity on the road should. On this particular night, after conquering my RA responsibilities, I found myself hustling across campus to get to a budget meeting for a club I co-run, and elected to take my little George-Street-Shuffle to cut the usual time and get to where I needed to go without too much more delay. A regular day, a regular hurry, a regular move; however, this time, an irregular occurrence: the police.

I saw the officer just a second too late; I hopped on my bike and sped towards my destination mere moments (and I even hesitate to add the plural there) before I registered that the unusual brightness I saw at the corner of George and St. Philip was actually an officer of the law, hungry for the low-hanging fruit of students speeding off to their ends-of-line. I tried to play it cool, hopping off my bike and speedily half-jogging, half-trotting away into the night with the speed and panic unique to those who know they’re about to get screwed. I knew I was cooked, however, when the lights and gentle whirring of a Segway (yes, I know, I was busted by a Segway cop) breached my ears. Erasing any hope I had from being spared from what I presumed would be a simple chastising and a “sorry, sir” from and to College of Charleston’s finest, I turned to face the officer and knew I would not be so lucky on either account.

The officer stopped and asked me if I knew what I had done wrong. Putting on my best god-fearing, church-going, nice-young-man voice, I responded that, “Yes sir, I biked the wrong way on the street and I apologize for my transgression.”

Apparently that did not satisfy Officer Friendly (not his actual name), as he pulled me over even further on the sidewalk and asked me for my license. I obliged, naturally, and prepared myself for a good ol’ fashioned talking-to, a ticket of barely more value than the paper it was written on and a wasted afternoon at the courthouse. I prepared myself for the inevitable and adopted a scowl and a tone of passive, yet righteous indignation as a last ditch effort to save my skin, as if the officer actually cared that I was upset by these late night goings-on. To nobody’s surprise, he did not, and began his final address with a solid one-two punch of “we’re just trying to keep you safe” and “it’s those guys at the top who want us doing this sort of thing,” finishing off any remaining sense of dignity or hope with a knockout slam of a $113 ticket, signed, sealed, delivered.

Let’s look at this issue as objectively as possible. I understand that as a citizen and a member of the social contract I broke the law, and am deserving of punishment decided by the government, which, as I have been told, is of, by and for people just like me. Punishment is an interesting legal phenomenon in that it is a sort of state-sponsored retribution, described as “the authoritative imposition of an undesirable or unpleasant outcome upon a group or individual, in response to a particular action or behavior that is deemed unacceptable or threatening to some norm” — essentially, if you deviate from the realm of accepted behavior, the law mandates that an action be done unto you in response. Tit for tat. A definition such as that would assume a certain reciprocity to the law, a certain understanding of equality and a strong sense of the punishment fitting the crime. Writing in a collection of legal essays simply titled Criminology, legal theorist Larry Siegel agrees: “…a principle often mentioned with respect to the degree of punishment to be meted out is that the punishment should match the crime. One standard for measurement is the degree to which a crime affects others or society. Measurements of the degree of seriousness of a crime have been developed.” Ergo, a felony is generally considered to be a crime of “high seriousness,” while a misdemeanor is not. Concurring in his study Offense Seriousness Scaling: An Alternative to Scenario Methods (also in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology), legal theorist James P. Lynch notes: “…in criminal law the degree of seriousness is considered when meting out punishment to fit the crime…seriousness of a crime is a major factor in considerations of the allocation of scarce law enforcement funds. The meaning and measurement of seriousness is a major concern in public policy considerations. A quantitative scoring system called the “seriousness score” has been developed for use in allocating law enforcement resources and sentencing.” Does the College of Charleston really need to spend its time, officers and resources fining an already (and quite notoriously) poor group into the ground to get its point across? The answer is twofold.

The first answer can be found on the front pages of The Post and Courier. Articles worrying about the apparent recklessness of students and the inability of public safety officers to do anything about it make local headlines, reporting that Charleston police and College of Charleston public safety handed out a collective one hundred tickets in a span of two days, supposedly in the interest of safety but actually in the pursuit of easy money. The Post and Courier then states that the crackdown comes in response to city and neighborhood concerns about the potential for someone to get seriously injured or killed while bucking the rules of the road. These concerns are not unfounded, as occurrences like these have indeed claimed several lives over the last few months, but Charlestonians don’t buy it. There is no doubt an honest concern for public safety here, but the means are questionable. There is a disconnect between problem and solution, as the students and citizens interviewed by the Post and even yours truly haven’t stopped, and won’t stop, doing such things. They are either the only legitimate way to arrive at a destination (without faring high speed roads like Meeting and East Bay) or a realistically harmless shortcut to our destinations, a deeper look into the applications and justifications of punishment is warranted.

Jurisprudentialists (lawyers) and legal theorists divide punishment into a few different purposes. The first one, and perhaps the most well-known, is deterrence. This justifies punishment as a measure of preventing people from committing an offence — deterring previous offenders from re-offending, and preventing those who may be contemplating an offence from actually committing it. This punishment is intended to be sufficient that enough people would choose not to commit the crime rather than experience the punishment. We apply to people’s self-interest by assuming that they would rather not bring the potential for negative things to happen to them than commit a crime. In the case of the tickets, myself and my other 99 friends have proven that ineffective.

The next is rehabilitation. Some punishment includes work to reform and rehabilitate the culprit so that they will not commit the offence again. This is distinguished from deterrence, in that the goal here is to change the offender’s attitude towards what they have done, and make them come to see that their behavior was wrong. I’m not quite sure how we could go about rehabilitating people from riding the wrong way down the road, but it seems unlikely that one would find rehabilitation at the business end of a $113 ticket.

The next method, incapacitation, is a justification of punishment that refers to the offender’s ability to commit further offences being removed. Imprisonment separates offenders from the community, removing or reducing their ability to carry out certain crimes. The death penalty does this in a permanent and irrevocable way. In some societies, people who steal are punished by having their hands amputated. I don’t think, however, too many people would back death to bikers, though I have certainly met enough angry drivers to make me question that assumption.

Criminal activities typically give a benefit to the offender and a loss to the victim. Punishment is justified as a measure of retributive justice, in which the goal is to rebalance any unjust advantage gained by ensuring that the offender also suffers a loss. This is sometimes viewed as a way of “getting even” with a wrongdoer-  the suffering of the wrongdoer is seen as a desired goal in itself, even if it has no restorative benefits for the victim. One reason societies have administered punishments is to diminish the perceived need for retaliatory “street justice,” blood feud and vigilantism. Again, I do not see too many “right-way vigilantes,” but the impersonal nature of retribution (and the scary sounding name), especially when dealing with such a controlled population like college students, the lack of expected backlashes of retributive justice suggests that a more personal and less costly method of addressing the issue.

Public Safety at the College of Charleston takes the “restoration” avenue. Essentially, for minor offenses, punishment may take the form of the offender “righting the wrong”, or restitution. Community service or compensation orders (a ticket) are examples of this sort of penalty.

What is missing from these modes of thought? What is the College not taking advantage of that regular society does not take advantage of? Well, the College of Charleston is just that: a college. We are an institution of higher learning. We value education, knowledge, and the application of that knowledge given the circumstances to apply it. Wouldn’t it be more valuable to take a more educational approach? Punishment can serve as a means for society to publicly express denunciation of an action as being criminal. Punishment can also be explained, by positive prevention theory, to use the criminal justice system to teach people what are the social norms for what is correct, and acts as a reinforcement. We’ve got the denunciation part down —  nobody wants to see a dead student show up in the news — but we’re lacking in the education department. Sure, we all know that it is against the law to bike the wrong way down the street, but why not come down to the street’s level? Why not engage students in conversation, let each side project its case, express its concern, and come together in meaningful dialogue to make meaningful change? An open and honest conversation could be a lot more useful than a 100 angry students and a 100 wasted afternoons at the courthouse.