Chapter 5 of One Nation Under Arrest is titled “Criminalizing Kids.” This chapter includes stories demonstrating that it is not just adults who face the dangers of overcriminalization. The prevailing mindset among most legislators and government policy makers is that criminal law and criminal punishment are generally the best tools to “solve” any important problem. As a result, more and more children have been victimized by overcriminalization.
The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” but not even Miles Rankin’s Scout Master could have prepared Miles for the injustice this twelve-year-old adventurer would suffer in Henry County, Georgia. Miles Rankin was a dedicated student with good grades. In addition to being diligent in his studies, Miles was learning to serve his community with the Boy Scouts.
So it was shocking to many when they saw Miles being handcuffed in class, marched through his school by uniformed police officers, and taken away in a squad car to a juvenile detention facility. What was his offense? He did not take his coveted Boy Scout pocket knife out of his pocket before leaving home that morning.
Unfortunately, cases like these have become increasingly common. In an effort to solve specific problems, lawmakers and public officials are eager to pass laws and implement policies that criminalize behavior regardless of the offender’s intent. Miles’s case is a perfect example. After showing some of his friends the two-inch pocket knife, one of them informed the teacher. None of the students who saw the knife said they felt threatened, nor did they think Miles might harm someone. There was no evidence that Miles had any intention of doing anything wrongful with the knife. While a school has every right to impose reasonable and appropriate discipline upon a student if his behavior violates school policy or poses a risk to others, the school board’s actions in this case were downright ludicrous. As if the humiliation of being treated like a common criminal in his own school and in front of his peers was not enough, that is only half of Miles’s story.
After being taken to a detention facility, Miles was brought to juvenile court where Henry County officials added additional restraints. The presiding judge, who coincidentally also served as the attorney for the school board, decided that Miles should remain in the detention center. Only after Miles had spent 48 hours away locked up were his parents able to pick him up on conditional release. Following his stint in juvenile detention, the school held a disciplinary hearing, where he freely admitted to bringing the knife to school. The frightened 12-year-old was subsequently expelled for the remainder of the year. The Rankin family appealed the punishment, but the Henry County school board simply reviewed the transcript without conducting an independent inquiry of its own before affirming the school’s decision. Compounding the hardship Miles faced, the juvenile court deemed Miles “in a state of delinquency” and ordered him to serve thirty days under house arrest, imposed a curfew on him, and placed him on 180 days of probation.
Miles’ story is not unique. Dozens of other innocent Americans like Miles have suffered from the arbitrary and unjust exercise of power that comes from overbroad criminal laws. When a Boy Scout’s merely carrying a two-inch pocket knife is a crime, we are in grave danger of criminalizing almost everything. This is just one example of “overcriminalization,” and you can read about more in “One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty” and at our web site, Overcriminalized.com
Miles Rankin’s legal troubles stemmed from the zero-tolerance policy in his school. Zero-tolerance policies result in part from the propensity of many parents to challenge and even sue school officials for almost any exercise of professional judgment and discretion. Many school boards and administrators try to protect themselves by adopting zero-tolerance policies that allow for no exercise of judgment at all. Zero-tolerance policies do nothing, however, to engender respect for the law or for the officials who tie their hands with them.
Of course, protecting students is a top priority, but in the process of ensuring safety, lawmakers and public officials must not abandon common sense and professional judgment. Miles Rankin and his family’s life have been scarred by an indiscriminate group of administrators who found it easier to hide behind a zero-tolerance policy than to exercise sound judgment. They were so caught up in their own policy that they could not appreciate the real-life consequences of such an irresponsible application of law.
What kind of message does that send to society? Miles’s situation resulted from a knife he used in the Boy Scouts. He was not a gang member planning an attack on a fellow classmate. Like thousands upon thousands of Scouts before him, Miles was showing off one of the tools he learned to use while also learning the principles of good citizenship and how to serve his community. After this deplorable application of criminal law and school policy by Henry County’s public officials, maybe they too could benefit from a lesson in these virtues. And perhaps clear-thinking voters later gave them one.
Scott Burton is an intern in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm