During the winter of 1796, a Frenchman named Eugene Francois Vidocq was sentenced to eight years of hard labor after being convicted of document forgery.
It was a remarkably harsh punishment for a non-violent crime, especially in Vidocq’s case as there was not even a victim.
Yet this took place during the chaos that ensued after the French Revolution. The scars from the Reign of Terror still remained.
Long sentences were typical, and Vidocq could have just as easily been put to the guillotine. There were countless other examples just like him.
Victor Hugo’s protagonist Jean Valjean from Les Miserables is loosely based on Vidocq.
In the novel, Valjean is sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread so that his family wouldn’t starve.
It wasn’t much better in the rest of Europe.
By the end of the 1700s in England, the number of capital offences stood at 220.
Back then you could be hanged for stealing any item worth more than 12 pence, about $20 in today’s money.
This is one of the many reasons why so many peasants fled their home countries in Europe to come to America.
America stood for liberty and opportunity… not oppression and punishment.
In fact, the US Constitution even had special amendments forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, and enshrining fairness, justice, and due process.
And the Constitution itself only listed three original federal crimes: counterfeiting, treason, and piracy.
But a lot has changed over the past two centuries.
Today there are thousands of federal crimes, not to mention countless rules and regulations at federal, state, and local levels that carry jail time.
There’s the case of Palo Alto resident Kay Leibrand, for example, a 61-year old cancer patient and grandmother who was arrested a few years ago because her xylosma bushes were more than two feet tall.
Or Ansche Hedgepeth, a young girl who was arrested in Washington DC for eating French fries at a metro station when she was just 12-years old.
Or George Norris, a 67-year old grandfather in poor health who was sentenced to 17-months in prison for importing orchids without the proper paperwork.
Mr. Norris’s health continued to decline as he was not able to receive proper treatment while in prison.
Over the weekend I read a particularly disturbing story about a man named Shannon Hurd.
Hurd had suffered from a severe drug addiction and had had a few run-ins with the law, including illegal possession of a firearm, and “theft over $500”.
Several years ago he was convicted of robbery for stealing $14 and given a life sentence in a maximum-security prison.
Hurd eventually developed kidney cancer and received pitiful treatment; he died in prison two weeks ago.
Hurd may not have been a model citizen, but it leaves me questioning whether that was true justice.
Then there’s Glenn Ford, who spent 30-years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
He was eventually exonerated and released, though the state of Louisiana denied him any compensation for three decades of wrongful imprisonment.
Ford died shortly after his release due to cancer that had gone untreated while he was in prison.
It would be disgusting to hear about such stories in central Africa or Uzbekistan.
The fact that these conditions exist in the Land of the Free is absolutely appalling.
According to statistics from the Justice Department, there are nearly 2.2 million inmates in the US prison system today, with an additional 4.5 million on parole or probation.
Insane. Even at the height of the Soviet Union there were only 1.7 million people in the Gulag.
Yet data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that the vast majority of inmates are serving time for non-violent crimes.
An overwhelming 46.4% of inmates are in federal prisons for drug-related offenses. 8.4% for immigration offenses. 6.5% for fraud.
Lance Saltzman is currently serving a life sentence without parole for stealing a firearm from the home of his violent stepfather who had a history of physically abusing (and even shooting at) Saltzman’s mother.
Ronald Lee Washington is currency serving a life sentence without parole after being convicted of shoplifting two Michael Jordan jerseys.
Washington had been convicted in the past of petty, non-violent theft, all to support his drug habit.
Now he’s costing the taxpayers more than $30,000 per year, which is the average annual cost to house, feed, and guard an inmate.
Even the hardest, most uncompassionate people might realize that there are probably more cost effective ways to rehabilitate someone.
Yet this is what passes as “justice” now in the Land of the Free.
You can hardly get through a single day without violating half a dozen obscure regulations that you’ve never heard of.
And in addition to this over-criminalization of non-violent (and often victimless) acts, many of these obscure rules carry incredibly steep punishments.
It’s Jean Valjean all over again.
I’m reminded of the story I sent you a week and a half ago about my friend Ben, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who learned first hand that the system isn’t designed to protect him.
Ben’s car had been stolen, and he was astonished at how little the police seemed to care.
They were far more concerned with their paperwork and office gossip than finding his stolen car, which he literally had pinpointed with a GPS device.
Being the value creator that he is, Ben closed his comments by asking the question, “How can we fix this?”
How do you fix such a rigged, oppressive, inefficient system?
Like all solutions, it starts with acknowledging the root problem: You are not free.
Despite all the flags, songs, and lifetime of propaganda, the simple fact remains that a free society does not constantly threaten its citizens with violence or criminalize nearly every aspect of their existence.
Step two in solving this problem: Make sure you’re not a victim of it.
More on that in the coming days.