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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Making Civil Crimes Criminal

In an interesting article on the political ideas of British Tory MP Alan Duncan at Tech Central Station, James Pinkerton notes that prosecutors in the United States have been increasingly using the criminal process to chase after civil violations, referring to a Wall Street Journal article I referenced recently on the same subject:

A couple of years ago, Cato's own Gene Healy wrote a book about this, Go Directly To Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything, in which he argued that prosecutors were zealously turning civil violations into criminal violations, in part to extort plea bargains, in part because, well, this is a prison-happy culture, where nearly one percent of the US population is locked up. More recently, The Wall Street Journal editorial page has taken note of this same phenomenon; prosecutors now have the legal equivalent of Abrams tanks, which they can use to run over anybody, accused of just about anything. When non-violent suspects are threatened with prison terms that stretch for decades, or even centuries (and when employers are terrorized into cutting accused employees loose, financially, leaving them with no hope of paying their legal bills), well, then, of course, the accused take the plea, and justice, of course, is traduced.

Pinkerton and Healy are correct. Martha Stewart and other bosses of big companies may be unsavory characters, but their crimes are civil ones for which the justice system provides appropriate remedies, which criminal prosecutions are most decidedly not.

When they came for the farmer who tilled land supposedly holding endangered species, I cheered.

When they came for the CEO whose firm manipulated their books to keep their tax payments low, I cheered.

When they came for the politician whose fundraising activities could be portrayed as violating an obscure, incomprehensible, and unconstitutional law, I cheered.

When they came for me, there was no one left to cheer.

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