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Seven years in prison is too extreme

By Scott Tibbs, April 22, 2015

When so-called "teachers" in Atlanta were found to have changed students' grades on test scores, it was a scandal that got nationwide coverage, and rightly so. Many parents wondered if this was happening in their school. As the criminal case draws to a close, though, it is unsettling that a judge has exposed these teachers to an extreme punishment. For fixing test scores, they will spend seven years in prison.

Is it really necessary to send these people to prison for seven years? Now, don't get me wrong. I do not want to see them ever working in a school again, even as a janitor. They have broken the public's trust and they have no business in the educational environment. It would be an extreme breach of the public's trust and a shameful waste of money to ever allow these people to work in a school again.

But what public good is served by sending them to prison for seven years? None. The public is not going to be better off by throwing these teachers in prison.

Now that they have been removed from their jobs, are they still a threat to the community? Will they be able to commit more crimes like this if they are not sent to prison? Again, the answers to both of those questions is no. Removed from their positions of authority, they will not be in a position to commit more crimes like they did in their jobs, and they will not be able to defraud students and parents of a good education. Putting them in prison does not protect anyone.

These people stole an education from vulnerable children in order to make themselves look good. There is no way to defend or excuse their reprehensible behavior. But sending them to prison for seven years is a huge waste of money in addition to being a wildly disproportionate reaction to the fraud they committed. It will heap more costs on the taxpayers, because housing prisoners is expensive.

Putting them in prison does some social good in that it is punishment for the offenders and serves as a deterrent to others who may be tempted to commit educational fraud. But the punishment needs to fit the crime. We execute murderers, but we do not execute jaywalkers. We can also hold these degenerates as an example with a stiff financial penalty. They should also be permanently ineligible for government benefits. The message there would be simple: If you commit fraud in your public job, you can expect to be financially ruined.

This case is an unfortunate example of the over-eager "war on crime" mentality that has filled our prisons. People who commit nonviolent crimes are subject to the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality that was popular from the 1970's through the 1990's. But even conservatives are starting to recognize the staggering social costs of this mentality, and there is bipartisan support for meaningful criminal justice reform. Seven years in prison for cheating on tests is an anachronistic penalty that should not be imposed. These teachers need to be punished, but not this way.