Sentencing

The Economist on America's Senselessly Harsh Criminal Justice System

|

A recent Economist article about America's excessively harsh criminal justice system quotes Reason contributors Gene Healy and Harvey Silverglate while hitting several themes that will be familiar to our readers: our country's exceptionally high incareration rate, driven by draconian drug penalties and other mandatory minimum sentences; the conflict between drug control and pain control; and vague, overlapping federal statutes that turn trivial offenses into felonies with multiple penalties. The lead tells the story of George Norris, a 65-year-old orchid importer with Parkinson's disease who received a 17-month prison sentence because some of the people who shipped him flowers did not always do so with the proper paperwork. Had he not pleaded guilty, he could have gotten 10 years: five for lying to a federal official and five for conspiracy.

Radley Balko noted the Norris case last year.

[Thanks to John Kluge for the tip.]

Advertisement

NEXT: Reason.tv: Nanny of the Month for July 2010-San Fran Soda Banner Mayor Gavin Newsom!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Economist on America’s Senselessly Harsh Criminal Justice System.

    And tomorrow they will do a piece on the burning sun and the wet oceans…

  2. “Lying to a federal official” is the most insidious crime on the books. Most people who are honest actually think talk to the feds is a good idea. And they also think that their excuse is a good one and will end the whole thing. Once they start talking to the feds, then all the feds need to do is catch them in one misstatement and they have them. That is what happened to Martha Stewart.

    It is just outrageous. Lying should not be a crime unless they can prove the underlying offense that you are lying about. And even then it should only be a crime if they can show the lie in some way hindered the investigation or caused some harm.

    1. Making it a crime to lie to the feds is not one of the enumerated powers.

      Thus, it is treason for any public sector actor to participate in the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of one accused of lying to the feds.

      The appropriate sentence for such treason should be public decapitation.

      1. What are you, too fancy for drawing and quartering?

    2. Innocent or guilty, involved or not, one only needs four words when dealing with police: Talk to my lawyer.

      1. Exactly. The sorry fact is that honest people don’t know that. Crooks do. But most people have no interaction with the justice system. And they mistakenly think cops are on their side. The system is designed to victimize the most honest and trusting.

    3. “Once they start talking to the feds, then all the feds need to do is catch them in one misstatement and they have them. That is what happened to Martha Stewart.”

      No way.

    4. The best favor you can do yourself is not to talk to the police. It can’t ever help.

    5. I agree. Unless you are under oath, you should be able to lie to government officials and law enforcement as they are able to lie — with impunity — to you. The double-standard is not appropriate for a so-called “free” nation.

      The practice of piling on charges until someone cops a plea is also heinous. It is only made possible because we tolerate the accumulation of so many overlapping laws on the books.

  3. who received a 17-month prison sentence because some of the people who shipped him flowers did not always do so with the proper paperwork.

    Nothing to see here.

    1. Wow. Is that some kind of special web edition of The Onion?

        1. It is getting harder and harder to satirize these days.

      1. no, government is good, John.

    2. That’s a parody site, right? It has to be.

  4. Maybe the limey poofters at L’Economist can house this surplus population of criminals.

    1. Yeah, because non-violent drug offenders totally deserve to be in jail. I mean, they might eat all the Economist’s Cheetos or something, which in turn deserves the death penalty.

      1. Do you want other people eating your Cheetos?

  5. Is that some kind of special web edition of The Onion?

    “I am a Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College…”

    And it’s a dude.

    So it’s more like a tightly coded fem-dom slashfic version of The New York Times.

  6. [O]ur country’s exceptionally high incareration rate, driven by draconian drug penalties and other mandatory minimum sentences; the conflict between drug control and pain control; and vague, overlapping federal statutes that turn trivial offenses into felonies with multiple penalties.

    This is no accident – prosecution is BIG BUSINESS for many inside the US Gov, not only money-wise but also as a path to higher offices and politics.

    1. Agreed. Heck, our justice system is probably one of the biggest businesses on earth when you take into account the lawmakers, LEOs, judges, the millions of lawyers, the prison guard unions, all the contractors that build the buildings and feed the inmates, the list goes on and on.

  7. If you treat flower-importers like rapists, then soon you’ll be treating rapists like flower-importers. The consequence could be unduly low sentences for the rapists, in order to make room for those insidious flower-importers.

    1. Yes, I know the flower-importer committed a federal crime, and rape is usually a state issue.

      But sexual offenses can be crimes if they take place on federal property. Check out this guy, whose prison sentence was *almost twice* the sentence imposed on the flower-importer:

      “Kent pleaded guilty in February 2009 to obstruction of justice for lying to a . . . committee investigating an allegation he sexually harassed an employee. He also acknowledged that he had had non-consensual sexual contact with two female employees between 2003 and 2007. Samuel Kent was sentenced on May 11, 2009 to serve 33 months in federal prison on the charge of obstructing justice in the investigation of sexual abuse accusations. The obstruction charge carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. As part of a plea agreement, Kent admitted that the sexual conduct was non-consensual. Kent must also pay a $1,000 fine and a total of $6,550 in restitution to the two accusers. While in prison he will be required to take part in the Bureau of Prisons Alcohol Treatment Program.’

      And, oh yes, he was also impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives, and resigned from his post as *a federal judge,* which had been when committing his non-consensual sexual acts with a lower-ranking federal employee.

      So, yeah, he certainly deserved to get *almost twice* the prison sentence of the flower-arranger, since his crime was obviously *almost twice* as bad. ?

      1. Those laws make you under oath everytime you talk to a cop. That is bullshit. I have no problem with perjury. But lying to a cop is different. We punish perjury because there is something sacred about a trial. And to lie in a trial requires a lot of malice aforethought. But talking to a police officer is a totally different animal. And I don’t think lying to peace officer was a crime under the common law, though I am not sure.

        1. Rape only hurts one person. But when you lie to a cop, you’re lying to the government. And since the people are the government, you’re hurting every person in the United States when you lie to a cop. It’s an outrage that this guy was only punished half as harshly as the rapist.

          How’d that attempt sound? I feel dirty now.

          1. Not bad. Don’t you know flowers are a gateway plant?

            Also, weren’t you already dirty? You shower once a millennium, right?

            1. You should know about filth, you swarthy little mongrel Turk, or whatever the hell you are. Why don’t you go cover yourself in olive oil and grab some dude’s balls?

              1. Your homophobia and racism disgust me. There’s nothing wrong with oil wrestling. It’s not gay or swarthy at all.

          2. You should feel dirty. I would advise taking a shower and burning your clothes after a performance like that.

        2. If the cops want you under oath/affirmation, they should get you before a grand jury. Cops should still be able to use inconsistencies in the defendant’s story to argue he did the underlying crime: “When we first asked him how come he had the victim’s purse in his apartment, he said they were a gift from a guy in a friend. Later he said he didn’t know where the purse came from, someone must have planted it. Why would an innocent person change his story like that? He must have been trying to cover up his purse-snatching!” That would increase the chance of getting convicted of the *underlying* crime (purse-snatching), rather than lying to investigators (lying about purse-snatching).

          But to make unsworn/unaffirmed statements into crimes strikes me as excessive.

          1. “gift from a guy in a bar.”

          2. It’s not a purse, it’s a satchel!

  8. I know I should know this by now, but why are there not first amendment concerns about charges of “lying” to federal officials (when not under oath). Seems to me that Federal Officials lie to arrestees as a matter of course.

    1. There might very well be. It might be that nobody has argued that particular line of thought in a Federal Appeals Court yet.

  9. Prison Song

    Say what you will about the pinko fuckers in the band, but this really was an excellent album.

    1. Agreed 100%. And for the record, I think most pinko fuckers (especially ones in bands) are actually libertarian, but they’re just too stupid to realize it.

      1. I saw them once, and the singer spent a lot of the set ranting about COPORASUNS. I can’t imagine that he’s on our team.

        1. Well that’s where the stupid comes in…

        2. It is sad that so many musicians feel the need to get all political. They tend to be much better at music.

        3. But…corporations…AREN’T on our team. Unless you believe in socialized risk for privatized profit and lack of individual accountability for violating the rights of others. Corporatism has nothing to do with laissez faire.

      2. For a lot of them it seems to be just the “corporations are evil” crap that prevents them from freeing the inner libertarian. A lot really do see how fucked and irredeemable government is. They seem to miss the fact that interactions with corporations are voluntary except in a few (but growing number of) cases where the government forces you to do business with certain companies or industries. I hate advertising too, but I have found this amazing power within myself that allows me to ignore it and not buy shit I don’t want.

        1. Exactly, Zeb. And what REALLY drives me nuts is that almost everything they find objectionable about corporations is the result of the GOVERNMENT enabling them through favorable regulations. And yet their solution is more regulation, and they can’t see why that won’t work. Again, this is why stupidity prevents them from being libertarian.

        2. Actually, I wonder if a lot of the anti-corporate shit is not too different from the closeted folk who promote anti-gay laws. A lot of my “corporashuns are eevil” friends are a lot more materialistic and buy a lot more consumer goods than I do. Perhaps they just want the government to protect them from themselves.

          1. As someone who used to be one of those ‘capitalism is evil’ people, know that these individuals should not be hated, but pitied.

            The truth of the matter is that we have an entire generation of people whose only exposure to the concept of capitalism (no less lazzeise-faire capitalism) is the kind of corporate interventionist bullshit that has all but destroyed the free market in this country (yeah, the socialist regulators do their part to, but for the matter at hand just go with it).

            Our main party of what’s SUPPOSED to be free enterprise is the Republican Party (even though they have no problem trying to suppress ‘certain industries’ for the ‘moral good’). These guys wave their fingers with one hand, screaming ‘free markets! free markets!’, and then reach behind themselves and use the other hand to fondle their corporate masters’ nutsacks.

            With such a skewed view of what free market capitalism REALLY is, can ANY of us be surprised that this generation has been turned off by the very idea of capitalism in the first place? These individuals should not be ignored, nor simply berrated. They should be pitied, listened to, and then educated.

  10. In Canada, we have a problem with being too light on certain criminals. We also have a ‘declining’ crime rate, but the degree to which this is due to declining reportage of crime and demographics is uncertain. While our system is better than yours, I really hope you don’t import our problems by letting ‘non-violent’ offenders like thieves and vandals off the hook. I’m personally in favor of progressive alternatives to prison for these types, such as flogging.

    1. While our system is better than yours, I really hope you don’t import our problems by letting ‘non-violent’ offenders like thieves and vandals off the hook.

      So, its better, except in the parts where it’s way worse. Kinda like your healthcare system, eh?

    2. The problem is not so much violent vs. non-violent. I have no problem with Bernie Madoff rotting away in jail or carjackers and arsonists doing their hard time. The problem is victimless crimes, which fill up the jails for no benefit to society (in fact, to its detriment, as imprisonment is expensive and the fact that these would-be taxpayers are now not making income only exacerbates the expense.)

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.