What's motivation behind judge’s English lesson?
The Times Leader
March 28, 2008




JUDGE PETER PAUL Olszewski Jr.’s sentencing of four Spanish-speaking men earlier this week raises all sorts of questions, mainly about the judge’s motivations.

Was Olszewski trying to deliver justice by ordering three of the criminals to learn to read and write English, or was he imposing his personal beliefs?

Here’s a recap.

Four young men, all of whom needed translators, appeared in court to plead guilty to criminal conspiracy to commit robbery. The Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas judge sentenced each of them to four to 24 months in county prison, but paroled three of the quartet because they already had served at least four months.

Then Olszewski took the unusual step of dictating that, in order to avoid serving the full two years, the parolees must learn English, earn high school-equivalency diplomas and, within 30 days of their release, get full-time jobs.

The defendants also must return to the court in one year to take an English test, according to the order. “If they don’t pass, they’re going in for the 24 (months),” Olszewski said.

This condition hardly seems fair. What if one or more of the bunch can’t master English in that timeframe? Is it moral to punish someone in the United States for being a slow learner?

Olszewski told a news reporter that he hadn’t planned on imposing a language condition, but was struck by the idea when he entered the courtroom and saw the translators. “Do you think we are going to supply you with a translator all of your life?” he asked the defendants.

Hmmm. If these men had relied on interpreters because they were deaf instead of Spanish-speaking Latinos, would Olszewski have ordered that they learn to lip read? Of course not. That behavior would be recognized by most people as spiteful.

But, given the current nativist undercurrent in the Wyoming Valley and much of the United States, the judge had no problem preaching his love-it-or-leave-it-style sermon.

He said the parties can ask him to reconsider the ruling within 10 days.

Fully aware of the controversy it might stir, Olszewski tried to frame his sentencing as an act of benevolence. It’s in the defendants’ best interests to further their educations and hold down jobs, he suggested. The judge, to his credit, has helped other defendants get work through an area employment agency.

Even so, his actions in this case seem patronizing. If his aim is purely to help these young men succeed, why not mandate bachelor’s degrees? Or how about require that they learn Chinese – the world’s most spoken language? Surely that would open up job opportunities.

No, the judge seemed to be making a political statement – one that resonates with area residents who hold disdain for “outsiders” and blame them for the bulk of Luzerne County’s crime.

Perhaps Olszewski, a graduate of Meyers High School, should take the next year to study history. Start with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Then go back to the formation of the Great Wall of China, an attempt by isolationist rulers to keep their lands free of “intruders.”

In both those examples, history has proven that powerful people made bad judgments for misguided reasons.

If the defendants had relied on interpreters because they were deaf instead of

Spanish-speaking Latinos, would Judge Olszewski have ordered that they learn to lip read?