- - Thursday, September 25, 2014

Justice isn’t always blind, and prosecutors are sometimes so dazzled by a high-profile defendant they lose sight of their responsibility to lock up a menace to society and cut a break to someone who makes an honest mistake.

James P. McClain, the top law enforcement officer in Atlantic County, New Jersey, demonstrates how his job should not be done, and that unequal justice under the law is a bad thing. He became the center of attention when Ray Rice, the infamous Baltimore Ravens running back, knocked his fiancee out cold in the elevator at an Atlantic City casino.

A security camera captured the act, leaving no doubt about what happened. Mr. Rice was arrested, indicted and was looking at five years in state prison. But he was a local celebrity, and Prosecutor Mr. McClain said that he could avoid all that, and a criminal record besides, by entering a pretrial intervention program. All he had to do was complete an “anger-management program” and refrain from punching out defenseless women for a year. That might have been hard for him, but it beat prison.

This generosity might or might not be appropriate now. The fiancee he punched out is his wife now, and she doesn’t want him to go to prison. Questions have been raised about how Mr. McClain bent the rules to let a celebrity slip into a program meant for first-time offenders and for nonviolent crimes.

Over the last four years, 15,000 persons, mostly men, were arrested in domestic-assault cases in New Jersey, but ESPN reports that only 70 defendants were allowed into the program. Mr. McClain nevertheless stood by his decision: “After considering all relevant information in light of applicable law, it was determined that this was the appropriate disposition.” If Mr. McClain is such a forgiving prosecutor, why did he throw the book at Shaneen Allen?

Ms. Allen was stopped for making an unsafe lane change on the Atlantic City Expressway. Ms. Allen, 27, is a single mother from Pennsylvania with two children. She was unaware that New Jersey is one of a handful of states that recognize the Second Amendment right to bear arms as applicable only to politicians and famous people. Her Pennsylvania “carry permit” is not valid in New Jersey, where such permits are issued only to a special few.

Ms. Allen, being a good and helpful citizen, told the arresting officer she had a gun, and was promptly arrested. Everything about her case suggested she deserved leniency. Her “crime” was inadvertent, there was no victim, and her two young boys depend on her. The same Mr. McClain who gave Ray Rice a pass refused to allow Shaneen Allen, who was arrested because she was trying to be helpful to an officer, to enter the intervention program. He said state law wouldn’t allow it.

Fortunately, New Jersey’s acting attorney general on Wednesday sensed a brewing storm of bad publicity and “clarified” that the law does in fact allow Ms. Allen to be eligible for the program. It was a sharp rebuke of the prosecutor, and Ms. Allen won’t go to prison after all.

The legal system should never be allowed to become the instrument of injustice. Everyone, and not just a celebrity, deserves a second chance. The prosecutor can line up with everybody else to get an autograph or a selfie with a celebrity.

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