In Les Misérables, an obsessed French police officer, Javert, relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean, a man who represents no danger to society but whose minor infraction brought down the wrath of the brutal government, including 19 years of hard labor and a lifetime of parole.
America, too, has its Javerts. Zealous and ruthless federal prosecutors have the power to torment people for trivial or imagined offenses, threatening them with decades of barbaric confinement. The consequences can be tragic even when the case is not seen through to completion. Take the example of Aaron Swartz.
Swartz faced 13 counts under the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, if convicted, could have faced 35 years in federal prison and a million-dollar fine. Earlier this month the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, and assistants Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland refused a plea bargain with no jail time.
On January 11 Swartz hanged himself. He was 26.
“He was killed by the government,” the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Robert Swartz, father of Aaron, as saying after the funeral. (Aaron publicly spoke of being depressed.) A family statement added, “The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
What did this young man do to prompt this relentless pursuit? Using the MIT computer network, he downloaded too many published scholarly articles (over four million) from JSTOR, a nonprofit database of academic journals, which charges nonacademics for access. Among his methods, Swartz planted a laptop in a closet at MIT without permission.
For this he was threatened with decades of imprisonment and the life-long stigma of being a felon. Perpetrators of financially significant crimes with victims are not treated so harshly. Why did this happen?
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Sheldon Richman (photo)