January 13, 2010
Are We Criminalizing Non-Criminals?

I guess your perceptions of what should happen to the Rutgers postdoctoral student and his girlfriend who breached security at Newark Airport on January 3 depend on whether you were a horribly inconvenienced traveler or learned about it via the news. I am sure the last thing on that young student’s mind was that his actions were going to shut down the entire terminal for six hours and back up flights and passengers into the next day.

It seems to me that when we assess what should happen to him, we can’t just judge his behavior on what happened but also on what he was thinking and whether other individuals in his position might have behaved similarly. I am thinking also about a number of people of that age I know who might have made a similarly awkward mistake. Do we as a society want to ruin this young man’s career and make a criminal out of him when it seems very unlikely that he intended any harm at all?

I also question whether it is appropriate to charge him with more than a petty disorderly persons offense as a deterrent for others. We should protect the public from this kind of inconvenience and from individuals who intend to do harm. We need to be very careful, though, that we don’t begin to criminalize non-criminals. That would not be good social policy, nor would it be fair to the one being used as the example.

I caution anyone thinking about, or acting upon, this situation to clearly focus on the twenty something they know and imagine them sneaking past a rope to kiss a girlfriend goodbye. Then I ask if they still think the student and his girlfriend deserve being charged with a federal crime because they unintentionally caused a really big stir. — Ann Renaud

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