Murder By Over-Criminalization

This article about the suicide of Reddit co-founder, Aaron Swartz, just enrages me! No sentient being can actually believe that Aaron Swartz should have been charged as a felon — much less, that the Feds actually piled on thirteen counts of criminal wrongdoing.

“Swartz faced 13 felony charges, including breaching site terms and intending to share downloaded files through peer-to-peer networks, computer fraud, wire fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture.”

How utterly stupid and how indicative of the out-of-control behavior of federal prosecutors in our time. This fiasco highlights a number of problems in the American criminal justice system. Let me point out just a few:

1. Feds seem to be determined to criminalize behaviors which, at most, should result in civil fines. One can argue that all the Enron cases should have been civil proceedings, as they would have been in earlier, more sane, times.

2. Feds routinely over-charge cases nowadays. They do this to provide themselves leverage in the plea bargaining process which now dominates the American criminal justice system. In the Aaron Swartz case, the Feds were actually trying to force the poor guy into pleading guilty to all 13 felony charges without a trial! The Feds consider over-charging as simply a negotiation ploy — here the ploy cost a man his life.

3. The way that the Feds accumulate “countless counts” is by heaping technical charges on defendants — such hollow charges should be eliminated. Prosecutors use charges such as “wire fraud”, “computer fraud”, and “mail fraud” to avoid dealing directly with the alleged underlying crime, trying, instead, to convict people for some ancillary action, such as sending a letter, approving a press release, or using a computer.

All these abuses, and many others, were used repeatedly, and in bulk, in the Enron prosecutions. The tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz shows us that there is a cost to letting the Feds run loose. It is time for serious reform of our criminal justice system. A clean-up of the dysfunctional Department of Justice would be a good place to start!

Cara Ellison

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