The Economist has an excellent article about criminal justice in America, including valuable observations about the over-abundance of victimless crimes and incomprehensible laws that result in prison time for failing to understand the intricacies of government regulations. My only quibble is that the article could have paid more attention to the potential value of locking up people who commit real crimes such as rape, murder, burglary, and assault. I realize I’m nit-picking, and I’m fully aware that prosecutors can engage in abuse even when targeting genuine criminals, but there are some people who belong in jail.
Three pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls. Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely. In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?” Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay. He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term. As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison. …Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. …As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. …The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them. …Badly drafted laws create traps for the unwary. In 2006 Georgia Thompson, a civil servant in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”. Her crime was to award a contract (for travel services) to the best bidder. A firm called Adelman Travel scored the most points (on an official scale) for price and quality, so Ms Thompson picked it. She ignored a rule that required her to penalise Adelman for a slapdash presentation when bidding. For this act of common sense, she served four months. (An appeals court freed her.) …There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased. “The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.” “You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski. …Some prosecutors, such as Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced ex-governor of New York, have built political careers by nailing people whom voters don’t like, such as financiers.