Op-Ed: How the decision for former Lehigh football player Brian Githens to receive ARD fits into the greater debate of sentencing

Brian Githens

Brian Githens

Former Lehigh football player Brian Githens, who physically assaulted a fellow student in an off-campus house in November 2015, will be able to clear his record in just one year by going through an accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program.

While Githens’ name may not ring a bell to many, Lehigh students will remember his case because of the nature of his crime. In an attempt to get back at an individual who had beaten up his now former fraternity’s president, he accidentally broke into the wrong house and assaulted an unrelated Lehigh student.

This story will not make national headlines like the mind-bogglingly low sentence — three months in jail, essentially — that Brock Turner, a swimmer at Stanford University, received after raping a young woman. Facebook will certainly not be flooded with passionate statuses demanding for justice to be served.

And to be clear, it really shouldn’t be getting the same level of attention. Prosecutors had originally asked for Turner to serve six years, while Githens was more likely to serve six months to a year. Furthermore, the trauma inflicted on the victim of the rape is much greater than that of the victim in Githens’ case.

But while the magnitude of the crime is different, the fact that a student athlete at a Division I school was given a huge break in sentencing remains true in both cases.

Though the circumstances of Githens’ actions may not sound vicious given the fact that he was trying to stick up for his fraternity president, the incident took place in the city of Bethlehem and the law was properly enforced. He was charged with burglary, simple assault and criminal mischief/damage to property.

A few Google searches allowed me to realize that it’s almost unheard of to get ARD for a violent crime. These programs are usually for DUIs or other minor drug-related offenses. In fact, definitions of ARD programs usually include that they are for non-violent offenses.

So, the natural question becomes: How was Githens able to get this treatment?

According to an article by The Morning Call, the decision was made by District Attorney John Morganelli based on the belief that someone of Githens’ age should be given an opportunity to avoid having a felony criminal record.

The same article features quotes from Northampton County Judge Stephen Baratta, including one in which he commented that the decision “smacked of elitism.” Baratta clearly felt that Githens was getting preferential treatment based on his status as a Lehigh student athlete, however, he allowed it to happen because he could not find a legal reason to overrule.

Baratta is not the only one who feels that Githens’ good fortune was more than just a lucky break. David P. Colley of Easton wrote a strongly worded letter to Lehigh Valley Live explaining how it is clear that race played a role in the decision to let Githens — who is white — get off easy.

Colley may be 100 percent correct, or he may be sniffing out racism where it does not exist. It is impossible to know. We must be careful to label rulings like this one as racist or elitist because if we are going to be honest, we have no idea what went into the decision made by the DA.

There is a case to be made that while it is unorthodox to receive ARD for a violent crime, Githens deserved it. Lehigh Valley Live reported he not only apologized to the victim immediately, but has also been doing community service on a regular basis, taking classes at a university in New Jersey and working at a restaurant to help pay his legal bills.

That sounds like a good kid, doesn’t it?

But the argument of many, especially when issues like this one reach a greater audience like they have in the case of Turner, is that it shouldn’t really matter what kind of person you are before or after you commit a crime. Once the crime is committed, especially if it’s a serious offense, you are treated as a criminal because you are one by the most literal definition of the word. No matter if you are an athlete, non-athlete, man, woman, college student or college dropout, you are now to be treated how the law states you should be treated.

However, the one relevant topic that flies under the radar in situations like this is the effectiveness of our justice system. Why is it that there has been a precedent set for crimes like Githens’ never lead to ARD? Why is it obvious that some sort of exception has been made for him to be punished with a program other than jail time?

The United States is notorious for having one of the most ineffective prison systems in the world, based on punishment and with little success in rehabilitation. According to an April 2014 study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77 percent of U.S. prisoners actually find themselves back in jail within just five years of the time of their release.

So if Githens is able to successfully complete his ARD program and does not re-offend for the rest of his life, I see that as a small victory. Others might see it as a story of an entitled white football player who messed up and had to be saved by his privilege.

But no matter what you think about this situation, or any others like this, we should at least agree that our justice system needs to do a better job of being consistent and effective with the sentences it doles out.

Right now, most of the argument is about what is fair and unfair. Why don’t we speak more about what is going to help?

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  1. Ethan kramer on

    Easily and by far the best writing and content I’ve read in the B&w since starting at Lehigh 14 years ago. Thank you for making me proud to be an alum.

  2. So apologizing after you assault someone in his sleep makes you a good kid? He was trying to prevent charges being pressed against him..

  3. Amy Charles '89 on

    “Though the circumstances of Githens’ actions may not sound vicious given the fact that he was trying to stick up for his fraternity president”

    No, it sounds pretty vicious. Thug who plays a violent game, not bright, seeks extracurricular violence. As payback for an attack on his leader at a kind of organization famous for drunkenness, sexual assault, hazing.

    Yeah, Musa, don’t know what you were thinking there. How do we change the system, though? Gee, I dunno, maybe real diversity in the court and legal system so it’s not so much a bunch of white college guys looking after one another?

  4. Since graduating 20+ years ago and having represented thousands of defendants in criminal cases in various counties in PA, I can assure you that ARD for a simple assault is not unusual. The facts of this case do not accurately describe a burglary as most people understand it, though technically a conviction could have been obtained here. It sounds like a case a jury would have a hard time buying, though. ARD is a good compromise in cases like this, and that’s probably why it was offered.

    Look, I don’t expect 20 year olds to have a solid grasp of the criminal court system yet. And trust me, you folks obviously don’t. Even seasoned reporters with years of reporting on criminal court often lose the plot in coverage of crime stories. Ignorance is curable through training and experience. That’s what a sandbox like college is for, in some respects.

    One thing I would caution against is going full-bore SJW on an issue where you lack a deep understanding of the subject matter. The self-righteous and purple prose here about privilege and racism is just breathtaking. There’s a clear urge here to rush to a conclusion when you don’t have the facts or knowledge and experience to really express a truly informed opinion.

    I wade through serious issues with clients every day. I deal with truly racist police, jurors, witnesses and court staff pretty much every day. This isn’t clearly that.

    And, for what it is worth, I recently (two weeks ago?) watched a video of state troopers holding down a client they just arrested after a chase while one trooper kneed my client in the face nine times while my client was held immobile on the ground. I suppose his white privilege didn’t really help him out too much, but I’m getting anecdotal.

    In any case, there are far larger problems to worry about as opposed to retiring to your fainting couches to fan yourselves over micro-aggressions and a naive and utterly unsubstantiated claim that this particular defendant somehow cashed in on white privilege. What an amazing and baseless leap to make, and what an incredible insult to someone (Morganelli) whom you’ve probably never even spoken to.

    I don’t deal with him and I don’t practice often in Northampton County, but I’ve dealt with many, many DA’s and prosecutors. Making an assertion that he’s acting based on racist preferences to guide his public decision-making is an extremely serious charge. If true, he should be disbarred. I can’t believe you’d make such a reckless and baseless accusation using the B&W as your platform.

    Lehigh is looking less and less like a place I want to send my kids to if this is the dominant intellectual fad of the day.

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