© Josh Sager – April 2015
Last week, eight Atlanta teachers and school administrators who were involved in test-fixing scandal were sentenced to significant prison time. This conclusion to the Atlanta test-fixing scandal is an unfortunate illustration of the inequities that have characterized our modern criminal justice system.
The state argued that these educators constituted an organized criminal organization that sought to artificially increase student test scores in order to gain personal bonuses. Put simply, teachers and administrators looked over high-stakes standardized testing sheets submitted by their students, erased some incorrect answers, and re-submitted them to be graded. These erasures boosted the average test score dramatically in some schools, creating the false perception that students were improving. As student scores were tied to incentive pay for educators, this resulted in thousands of dollars in bonuses for teachers.
Georgia prosecutors invoked the RICO anti-racketeering law—which is usually reserved for organized crime and corrupt judges/politicians—to convict these educators. The three highest-ranking administrators were sentenced to 7 years in prison and 13 years on probation, while the other five were sentenced to between 1 and 2 years in prison. These sentences are dramatically higher than what the state actually asked for, as Judge Jerry Baxter decided to use his discretion to impose these draconian sentences.
Test-fixing is a serious problem because it can redirect resources away from students who need them and can result in poorly-educated students not getting the help they need to catch up. That said, it isn’t the equivalent to organized crime, nor is it a reason to send teachers to jail for years.
The true injustice of these sentences can only be seen when you compare them to other analogous situations. One of the most stark such comparisons can be made between this case and the treatment of the banksters after the 2008 economic crash:
In 2008, our economy crashed because a bunch of wealth bankers decided to defraud their investors and sabotage their own banks. They created worthless derivatives using fraudulently-signed mortgages, and then sold these products to their customers with the intent to bet against them. The purpose of these illegal actions was to create a short term boom in the economy that they could ride to personal wealth, as well as to generate increased short-term profits in their banks so that they could claim millions of dollars in bonuses.
When the entire house of cards these bankers created started to fall, they had already extracted billions in wealth from the banks and were insulated from the economic consequences of their fraud. The government had to step in to prevent the entire banking system from crashing and we ended up bailing out the banks. Despite the clear proof of the fraud that had caused the crash, no bankers were ever charged with their crimes and many of them not only kept their jobs, but also were allowed to give themselves even larger bonuses using some of the bailout money.
If we treated the Atlanta teachers like we did the bankers who crashed our economy, this court case would never have been brought—in fact, the teachers would have kept their jobs, been allowed to keep all of their bonuses (as well as give themselves new bonuses), and the failing schools that they teach at would have been “bailed out” with as much public money as is needed to stabilize them.
The inequalities illustrated in this disparity are multi-faceted:
First, we see how rich entities are held to a different standard than poor ones. The banks have billions in wealth, while these teachers and their schools are just scraping by. This means that the government can comfortably make an example out of the poor teachers, but is unwilling to do anything that may harm the bankers who contribute money to political campaigns. This is even true when the bankers decide to commit massive and system fraud that causes immeasurable damage to the world economy and throws millions into economic uncertainty or poverty.
Additionally, even if the government decides to go after the wealthy, banks and bankers have the resources to grind a court case into a war of attrition that the government just doesn’t’ want to touch—this leads the government to want to settle for fines rather than even think about taking such a powerful entity to court.
Second, we see how public social welfare institutions are often treated far worse than private, for-profit, ones. Schools exist to serve the public good, yet are ceaselessly attacked by the entire right wing, and even a segment of the left. Conversely, private institutions like banks are lionized by our entire mainstream political class, and are held to a different standard. This disparity is seen even in the realm of schools, as demonstrated by the fact that, while many “for-profit” schools have been fined or shut down for fraud, I cannot find a single case of an executive within such an institution being sentenced to jail for any significant amount of time.
Third, we are faced with the racial undertones that underlie these sentencing disparities. The Atlanta teachers who were sent to jail are African Americans who taught in predominantly low-income African American district. Conversely, the bankers who destroyed our economy were predominantly white, and universally very wealthy. Our nation has the unfortunate history (and present) of being very good at sending poor black people to jail for draconian amount of time. Statistically speaking, blacks are sent to jail more often and for longer than whites, particularly in southern states. It would be foolish not to take this into consideration when analyzing the extreme harshness of these sentences.
The general takeaway from this situation is depressing, but not unexpected. The poor and powerless are being crushed by our criminal justice system while the rich and powerful have become virtually untouchable under the law. Banks and other for-profit entities are bailed out while vital social institutions that serve the most vulnerable among us are left to run on fumes. In short, the two Americas—the America for the rich and the America for everybody else—are getting farther and farther apart with less overlap every year.