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Denny Hastert: A Highly Unsympathetic Face of America’s Over-Criminalization Pathology

30.05.2015  |  14:32
Denny Hastert: A Highly Unsympathetic Face of America’s Over-Criminalization Pathology

Bush-era House Speaker Denny Hastert, who was indicted yesterday, is a living, breathing embodiment of everything sleazy and wrong with U.S. politics.

Bush-era House Speaker Denny Hastert, who was indicted yesterday, is a living, breathing embodiment of everything sleazy and wrong with U.S. politics. That is highlighted not only by his central role in enabling every War on Terror excess, but also by this fact:

Hastert’s ability to make such large cash payments probably came from his career as a K Street lobbyist. He entered Congress in 1987 with a net worth of no more than $270,000 and then exited worth somewhere between $4 million and $17 million, according to congressional disclosure documents.

That common arc is more of an indictment of U.S. political culture than Hastert himself, but he’s certainly been happily and hungrily feeding at the trough. A political system that essentially ensures that every powerful political official becomes extremely rich

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 is one that is inherently corrupt – as we’ve been taught for decades about those Bad Other Countries – andthat is the most interesting and most important part of this story.

But Hastert was not indicted for any of that. Nor was he indicted for the alleged, unspecified “past misconduct” against an unnamed person to whom he agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep concealed.

Instead, Hastert was indicted for two alleged felonies: 1) withdrawing cash from his bank accounts in amounts and patterns designed to hide the payments; and 2) lying to the FBI about the purpose of those withdraws once they detected them and then inquired with him. That’s it. For those venial acts, he faces five years in a federal prison on each count.

Denny Hastert: A Highly Unsympathetic Face of America’s Over-Criminalization Pathology. 521.jpegHastert is about the least sympathetic figure one can imagine. Beyond his above-listed sins, he sheperded the 2001 enactment and 2005 renewal of the Patriot Act, whose banking provisions, in sweet irony, seemed to have played a key role in his detection and in creating the crime of which he stands accused. His long record in Congress involved, among many things, denying equal rights to people based on the “Family Values” tripe, as well as continually supporting ever-increasing penalties and always-diminished rights for criminal defendants. So he’s reaping what he sowed.

Moreover, because Hastert is rich, well-connected and white, he’s highly likely to receive extremely favorable treatment from the U.S. justice system, as David Petreaus among many others will be happy to explain to you. That two-tiered justice system – a super-lenient and forgiving one for the rich, white, and powerful, a relentlessly oppressive one for everyone else – was the topic of my 2011 book, With Liberty and Justice for Some.

But there’s a reason the U.S. has become a sprawling, oppressive penal state, imprisoning more of its citizens than any other nation in the world: both in raw numbers and proportionally. There are actually many reasons: the profit motive from privatized prisons, the bipartisan nature of the “tough-on-crime” agenda, the evils of the Drug War, mandatory minimum sentences, the disproportionate use of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment against minorities.

But one key factor is over-criminalization: converting relatively trivial and harmless acts into major felonies. The postal worker who just engaged in an act of non-violent political protest – flying a gyrocopter to the U.S. Capitol lawn  to protest the corrupting role of money in U.S. politics – faces up to nine years in prison on multiple felony charges. That is over-criminalization, as are the shamefully large number of people in prison for selling prohibited narcotics to consenting adults who wanted them, or even for just possessing them.

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