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In Tiny Colorado Town, It's Drive Slowly or Go to Jail

In the sleepy, western Colorado town of Cedaredge, a slower pace isn't just a way of life, it's the law. In fact, those who insist on traveling fast here are apt to find themselves cooling their heels in jail.

Fed up with drivers who persistently careened through this rural town at well over the posted 30 m.p.h. limit, Municipal Judge John Wendt recently put his foot down on speeders. Hard.

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Late last year, the judge began jailing drivers caught going more than 20 m.p.h. above the speed limit. Ditto for drivers who pass a school bus with its lights flashing. And not only do drivers here earn an overnight stay in the slammer for their haste, they also face six-months probation, fines up to $150, and a six-point violation on their licenses.

Wendt's approach may be extreme, but it mirrors sentencing trends for crimes across the board in the United States. Experts say judges today are more likely than ever to order jail time for crimes - even petty ones - that previously were punished with milder sentences. Instead of imposing community service or fines, judges are increasingly putting first-time offenders behind bars for crimes such as shoplifting and vandalism.

"There is certainly a trend for more and more offenses to net prison sentences instead of just probation," says Dan Kahan, a criminal law professor at the University of Chicago. "This is true for all types of nonviolent offenses, including white-collar crime, property offenses, and drunk driving," he adds.

As a result, during the past 25 years, US prison populations have quadrupled - thanks to a combination of higher incarceration rates, and longer sentences.

Moreover, experts say the public seems to favor tougher sentences, regardless of whether they are more costly to taxpayers. "Polls show that 75 to 80 percent of people say that sentences are too lenient," notes Michael Tonry, a University of Minnesota law professor. "And judges think they ought to be responding to harsher public attitudes."

Too harsh?

But does lead-footed driving really warrant a mandatory 24-hour jail stint - especially when offenses like domestic abuse, rape, or driving under the influence of alcohol rarely carry such consequences?

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Judge Wendt thinks so, and he says he has the facts to prove it. On last month's docket - for the first time he can remember - not a single person was up on charges of excessive speed or illegally passing a school bus. And this, Wendt says, proves that the threat of jail works.

"Believe me, when you say jail, it gets people's attention," the longtime judge says.

And here in Cedaredge, a growing community of 1,800 residents, some are beginning to agree with him. For one thing, Highway 65 doubles as the town's main street, but there isn't a stop light on it. And although the speed limit drops from 50 to 30 m.p.h. inside the city limits, until recently, many drivers never bothered to hit the brakes.

"We have a lot of people crossing the street. It's just been sheer luck that someone hasn't been killed," says Lisa Long, municipal court clerk. "I think it's a good policy."

Town Marshall Tom Early, who heads a patrol department of three officers, also believes that driving behavior had become unmanageable here, and that the threat of speeding fines and tickets was simply not working.

In fact, not long after the new policy went into effect, he stopped one driver roaring through town at 62 m.p.h. "That's just outrageous," he says. The driver, a juvenile, served her 24-hour jail sentence last month, as did a handful of other early offenders. And now word of the tough policy has spread, and speeders are slowing down, he says.

"At first there was a big controversy over whether the judge should be jailing people for speeding. But it seems to be working," Marshall Early says with a shrug. "So I guess we had to do something to get people's attention."

The town council also unanimously supports the policy.

Local opposition

Still, local criticism hasn't exactly disappeared. "I don't think it's right. Absolutely not," says motel owner Brian Mason. "It would be different if someone had four or five speeding tickets, but for a first-time offense, I don't see a day in jail."

For that matter, he says, there are more serious offenses that bring only probation and a fine. "They have drunks and druggies who come into court, and it's 'let's make a deal.' It's not like speeding is a major crime."

And others point out that Wendt himself has amassed a collection of speeding tickets over the years - including one for going 73 m.p.h. in a 40 m.p.h. zone. But Wendt, who admits he likes to drive fast, says that's beside the point.

"I'm trying to keep some kid from being killed. I don't deny that I've received speeding tickets, but I take responsibility for my driving," he says. "If I were driving 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit, I'd have to spend the night in jail, too."

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