Teachers Are Going to Prison, Yet Wall Street Criminals Go Free

An inmate holds onto a fence - Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mario Tama/Getty Images

America has changed.

We sabotage our own foreign policy efforts, pretend to work 80-hour weeks, and somehow justify letting many of our most notorious and economically-damaging criminals walk away from punishment with a proverbial slap on the wrist. Even as kids, we’re all told that cheaters never win and that honesty is always the best policy, but that lesson is quickly forgotten when one enters adulthood. In many cases, some people seem to escape the justice that society at large believes they deserve, just because of their high rank or status.

Perhaps the most egregious sign that American priorities have shifted is the fact that while white-collar criminals roam free to strike another day, we throw teachers in jail.

In this specific case, a group of 20 teachers in Georgia were caught manipulating student test results. Because funding for education has become so closely tied to test scores, these teachers, runs the defense, cheated in order to save their jobs. The link between funding and test results created an incentive for unethical behavior from teachers and administrators..

Even though there is incentive to cheat at a broken game, what these teachers did was wrong. Judge Jerry Baxter, who passed sentences to 10 teachers involved in the ordeal, placed blame firmly on the shoulders of the educators. He portrayed the educators as corrupt agents of the education system and sentenced nine out of 10 of the teachers to serve jail time for their roles in the scandal.

There are legitimate reasons to fire or even discipline educators, though it can often be difficult. While these teachers do deserve to be punished, the choice of sending them to jail seems like overkill — especially considering the fact that these people did not commit any violent offenses. In fact, quantifying the damage they did would be a fairly difficult task. That didn’t stop a judge from recommending that nine educators literally be locked in cages, for as long as seven years.

The judge, in this case, felt that the damage done by these teachers warranted a hefty prison sentence for at least some of these teachers. But by that logic — levying heavy punishments for non-violent, yet damaging crimes — we should be seeing businessmen and bankers headed to prison in droves. It may be a part of the mass incarceration culture we’ve cultivated here in America, but white-collar criminals are still one group that’s largely immune. When you compare the damage done by that group to what these teachers did, it’s clear we have a real problem with criminal justice in the United States.

The bankers, of course, were more or less given a free pass in the wake of the financial crisis, despite nearly drowning the entire world’s economy. Only one man went to jail as a result (no executives), in spite of widespread fraud and corruption at our nation’s financial institutions.

 

The question is, how can these bankers get off scot-free, while we lock up teachers for a relatively minor crime? They both cheated, so why aren’t the punishments congruent? The financial crisis cost the world roughly $14 trillion in damages, while these teachers presumably may have set the education system back a bit (though it’s hard to quantify by how much, if at all).

Clearly, one crime’s fallout was much more crippling than the other.

What is obvious is that there is a major problem with our justice system. The wealthy and business elite can get away with enormous amounts of criminal activity with seeming impunity while the rest of us, teachers included, face incredibly harsh punishments for much lesser crimes. The Daily Show pointed out this same hypocrisy in a recent episode, a portion of which can be seen above.

Why do we allow almost any kind of behavior to go unpunished, as long as it is done in the pursuit of profit? We can look at other examples of big business getting away with things that individuals, especially low-income individuals, would never get away with. BP received little more than a slap on the proverbial wrist after doing untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico. Chiquita did business with terrorist groups.

What would happen if you or anyone you know funded a terrorist group?

The fact is, there is a double standard when it comes to punishment and there’s little hope that anything will change unless jail sentences begin to work their way into the equation. The real problem is that big business and government are thoroughly entangled, and many executives go on to serve in the public sphere after lengthy careers in the private sector. Look at Henry Paulson, for example, who stepped down from his position at Goldman Sachs to become the Treasury Secretary in 2006.

Could Paulson really be expected to turn on the same industry that made him a billionaire, and endorse heftier punishments for his former employees and cohorts in the wake of the financial crisis?

Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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