Punishment > Crime

Zach Luck

Last week the blogs buzzed with the story of a mother hit with a 10-day jail sentence and a $30,000 fine for misstating where she lived (she used her father’s address) to get her daughters into a better school.  The mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar, is now unable to get an Ohio teaching license despite being only a few credit hours away from her degree due to this felony conviction.

There are so many things wrong here its hard to know where to begin.  The heart-wrenching human drama of a woman severely punished for doing what she thought was right?  The continuing racial divide in American’s schools more than half a century after Brown?  The selective enforcement of a rule against a black family?  A criminal system which places ever-higher penalties on a felony conviction and ever-lower bars on what constitutes a felony?

Its about all these things, but it’s also about prosecutorial ethics.  The judge in the case spoke out on the over-zealousness of the prosecutor in the case.  The judge said she repeatedly tried to convince the county prosecutor to offer Williams-Bolar plea to a misdemeanor but that in the she “can’t put a gun to anybody’s head and force the state to offer a plea bargain.”

The brief clip of the prosecutor’s closing argument in this local news piece (at 1:19) shows the prosecutor dramatically announcing: “Ask yourself why, oh why, oh why, you would believe a word she told you on the stand!”

The real question is why do we let prosecutors politicize charges and demand outrageous sentences.  Why, oh, why do we let the adversarial system run amok?    I understand that schools have no choice but to find ways to enforce their district lines, this post isn’t about finding a way to radically alter our public school system to let any kid go to any school.  Or better yet, how to equalize funding, teacher-quality and educational opportunities across all schools for all kids.

Making the kids attend another school? OK.  A fine for deterrence? Fine.  Five years in prison and a felony record?  Absolutely not.  That’s right. The prosecutor in this case asked for a 5-year prison sentence for the crime of writing down grandpa’s address on a school enrollment form.  It was only thanks to the judge’s leniency that Williams-Bolar is serving ten days in prison, two years probation and 80 hours community service instead.  Why, oh, why indeed.

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