Originally published at USA Today by Van Jones and Mark Holden | April 20, 2015
Last Tuesday, eight Atlanta Public Schools employees were sentenced to prison in one of the largest school cheating scandals in American history. But you wouldn’t know they were cheaters based on how they were treated in court. The educators were convicted of racketeering — a felony typically reserved for mob bosses, drug kingpins and terrorists.
The Atlanta teachers are now the latest victims of overcriminalization. They were charged under a law that had nothing to do with their actions. For years, the educators quietly changed students’ answers on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, dramatically boosting the scores. They did so because the tests are tied to the state’s funding for schools affecting their pay and employment.
The educators should be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment should also fit the crime. While similar scandals have occurred in 39 different states and Washington, D.C., the offenders have rarely been prosecuted as criminals. Yet in an unprecedented move, the prosecutors in Atlanta charged the educators under Georgia’s “Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act” — a law passed in 1980 specifically to combat the scourge of organized crime. RICO laws, which exist at the federal level and in 33 states, empower prosecutors to go after the leaders of organized crime who order but do not personally commit crimes such as robbery, money laundering and murder. Individuals convicted under such laws can face up to 20 years in prison.
As nonviolent first-time offenders, the Atlanta educators would not likely have received any jail time but for prosecutors’ unprecedented use of RICO. Three were sentenced to seven years in prison, two received two-year sentences and three will sit in jail for a year. Two others accepted plea deals with lighter sentences. Most must also pay a fine and serve probation and community service.
These punishments do not fit the crimes. Yet this is not a rarity — similar stories play out all too frequently around the country.
Overcriminalization is rampant in America’s legal system. A Florida fisherman disposed of undersized fish yet was convicted of violating a law passed to prevent destruction of business records. An Arkansas company ran children’s clothing consignment sales staffed by parents and volunteers and was charged with violating federal employment policies. A jilted wife in Pennsylvania doused over-the-counter chemicals on the doorknobs of her husband’s lover’s house and was prosecuted for violating an international treaty meant to prevent chemical warfare. The list goes on.
These and countless other examples are the result of America’s unwieldy and unjust criminal code. Today, there are estimated to be about 4,500 federal crimes scattered throughout the U.S. Code’s 54 sections and 27,000 pages. Add state laws plus the federal regulations that include criminal penalties and this number grows into the hundreds of thousands.
The criminal code is so broad and so confusing that Americans sometimes can’t help but run afoul of it. Once they do, their lives can quickly and permanently be ruined. A staggering number of criminal laws and regulations lack “intent” and “knowledge” requirements, which protect unwitting Americans who have no reasonable way of knowing they committed a crime. The list of nonviolent offenses is so broad that everyday activity can often be criminal. And many federal and state crimes are accompanied by mandatory minimum sentences that force minor lawbreakers into unjust prison terms.
The lawmakers and regulators who created this system were well-intentioned, but we can see the harmful results all around us.
This mass imprisonment worsens America’s poverty crisis. According to a Villanova University study, “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20%” in recent years. This makes sense, given that a stint in prison leads to nine fewer weeks of annual work and 40% lower annual earnings for former inmates, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Overcriminalization hurts the Americans who can least afford it.
These problems will get steadily worse until policymakers reform the broken criminal justice system. State and federal elected officials can start by cutting the criminal laws that go too far — especially for nonviolent offenses — and clarifying the ones that are overly broad and subject to frequent abuse. When new laws are established, lawmakers should ensure that they enhance public safety and satisfy the requirements laid out in the Bill of Rights. And they should only expand the criminal code when there is broad consensus.
The need for action is urgent. Eight Atlanta educators are on their way to prison because they were prosecuted and convicted as if they were mob bosses, which their actions, while reprehensible, did not warrant. How many Americans have to be similarly mistreated — and how many people’s lives have to be ruined — before policymakers act?
Van Jones, founder of Dream Corps/Rebuild The Dream, is a former special advisor to President Barack Obama. Mark Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries which supports the Coalition for Public Safety.