Crime and punishment and technology

"His object all sublime / He will achieve in time - / To let the punishment fit the crime." from The Mikado by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

What is the average sentence for kidnapping? Seventy-five years? Nope. Sixty years? No, if you forcibly abduct someone, on average, you'll get a fraction more than 18 years in the slammer.

How about murder? Got to be a lot longer, wouldn't you think? Fifty years perhaps? Nope. The average sentence for murder is just less than 21 years.

So let's see, if murder gets you 20 years and kidnapping 18 years, then what can a combination of ignorance and naiveté get you? Let's be clear, no one in the following tale got killed or even hurt, no property was stolen, no nuclear secrets leaked. So, go on, what's your guess? Give up? How about 40 years?

The story goes like this: A computer in an eighth-grade classroom in Norwich, Conn., displayed pornographic images, and the substitute teacher in charge that day, 40-year-old Julie Amero, who had hardly any computer experience, faces up to 40 years in prison after she was convicted of child endangerment by exposing them to pornography.

The oddities in this case include the fact that the Internet link to the PC was not filtered or monitored, the school had a policy of never turning computers off and had no way of controlling access to the device, and after the event the machine was not surveyed, as far as anyone can tell, for adware or spyware that would drive pop-ups. None of that apparently mattered to the court.

What is even more bizarre, the forensic analysis of the computer's content -- which shows that someone, presumably a student, was looking at a Web site about hairstyles and followed a link to another site that had pornographic links which initiated pop-ups -- was not admitted in the case, much to the disgust of the defense's consultant (See here.

The most questionable thing about Amero's actions is why she didn't turn off the computer when the pornographic images started appearing. But even though that would seem an obvious thing to do, I can understand how someone without computer experience could get extremely flustered when faced with an out-of-control situation they didn't understand.

So, while kidnappers normally get 18 years and murders get 20, Amero is facing as many as 40 years in jail for being found responsible for a few 13- and 14-year old kids seeing some nasty naked people,.

What we all have to wonder is how this "crime" could add up to being more serious than a murder conviction. My theory is that any time technology is involved in a crime, some kind of primitive urge is invoked in otherwise sensible people sitting in judgment, and their first desire is to severely punish anyone who seems to be responsible.

Perhaps this is related to Arthur C. Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

As anything to do with computers looks like magic to the average judge and jury, and every wily prosecutor knows that this can be capitalized on, voila! The accused must be guilty because they were touching the magic at the time the bad ju-ju was invoked, and thus they need to be punished. We can't have witches running around willy-nilly!

Amero is due to be sentenced March 29. It seems incredibly unlikely that this person, a noncomputer-literate, 40-year-old woman who has never been convicted of a crime, could be guilty as charged, but let's say she is . . . if that is the case, then does the potential punishment fit the crime? No, of course not.

The real crime in this case are the willful ignorance of the court and the manipulativeness of the prosecution. For that, the punishment should be really harsh.

Your judgments to backspin@gibbs.com.

Learn more about this topic

Teacher faces prison for pop-up infested PC

02/07/07

More children are exposed to online porn, study says

02/05/07

Software pirate gets record sentence

09/08/06

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