Photo by okfn on Flickr.

I was heartbroken to read that Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet freedom activist, author of RSS, and Reddit cofounder, killed himself on Friday. I’d met Aaron a few times; on April 6, 2009, he emailed me to ask about books he should read on city policy issues.

Aaron clearly suffered from depression, but his family, law professor Lawrence Lessig, and many others are also criticizing prosecutors in the Boston US Attorney’s office who hounded Aaron with multiple felony charges after he downloaded large numbers of academic articles at MIT, but never distributed them.

Aaron, and many others, find a major injustice in the the way academic journals pay authors nothing for articles but then charge large amounts of money for online access to the journals. That doesn’t justify lawbreaking, but his also wasn’t a transgression that merits multiple felony counts and jail time.

In a post entitled “Prosecutor as bully,” Lessig wrote:

If what the government alleged was true ... then what [Aaron] did was wrong. ... But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? ... Our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed. ...

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. ... I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”


Our local criminal justice system also has plenty of examples of proportionality failures.



Drivers who behave recklessly and kill pedestrians and cyclists usually face little punishment unless they are drunk or flee. When a driver was caught on tape assaulting a cyclist, authorities didn’t press charges. After police worked hard to investigate a driver who was allegedly on his cell phone when he hit and killed a senior crossing the street, prosecutors brought charges, but a grand jury refused to indict.

Meanwhile, our punishments for some transgressions often go far beyond what’s appropriate or what is necessary to stop crime, like suspending students for taking their prescription medication without proper paperwork or a 6-year-old for making a gun shape with a hand.

Even for violent crimes, which we absolutely must vehemently combat, prison terms often far exceed what’s necessary or effective. In his most recent column, David Brooks wrote:

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you’d want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren’t much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.


Instead, it’s more effective to fight lawbreaking by adding actual enforcement, so that more perpetrators get caught and punished. In the lingo of the field, you want to increase certainty rather than severity.

Based on this logic, our local government just passed a bill to relieve punitive burdens on drivers who speed. It made sense not to charge punitively high fees on speeders, since the primary objective must be safety rather than revenue. (Unfortunately, Phil Mendelson, who never participated in the task force that pored over research and debated options, then rewrote or deleted most of the key provisions in the bill that would increase certainty, and added new sections that will reduce safety in other ways.)

Now we’ve applied the certainty-over-severity analysis, or at least the less-severity half, to an area of crime that has a politically powerful constituency — drivers — behind it. Will the council now do the same for other areas of our criminal justice?

Unlike speeding, injustices in the way we prosecute drug laws or the “school to prison pipeline” disproportionately affect poorer and minority communities that have less political clout. The families who suffer from over-incarceration are less likely to be the ones having lunch with a councilmember than the business leader who might complain about some speeding tickets.

Will Wells try to fix laws that over-punish some people to little end, and under-punish others who today don’t face any consequences for serious transgressions? Will the rest of the council agree to such measures?

It’s not possible to devise a perfectly fair criminal justice system. Some people will get away with serious malfeasance while others suffer excessively. What we can do, both nationally by recalibrating our response to journal article downloading versus financial fraud, or locally in our response to speeding versus shooting transgendered people, is push for more proportionality where possible. There’s a lot of work to do.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.