Monday, January 31, 2011

The curious case of Kelley Williams-Bolar

Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African-American woman from Ohio, will spend 10 days in jail and be placed on probation for two years for having falsified papers so that her children could attend school in a wealthier white neighborhood. As the linked post puts it: "A poor BLACK woman on public assistance is being jailed for sending her kids to the rich white school. I’m not arguing whether this is how it should be looked at–I’m saying that's how it is looked at."

Yes, some of the commentators have invoked the point that she broke the law, and yes, the rule of law matters. At the same time, this still feels like a stunning example of the well-documented toward the overcriminalization of everything. Why, precisely, is a civil penalty not an appropriate remedy for the alleged wrong that the taxpayers have suffered? Why is jail time a necessary deterrent? Should this not worry us regardless of the race of the defendant? (Reading this brought back childhood memories of reading and re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which the poor Irish-American heroine Francie Nolan's mother similarly bent the rules to get her daughter into a better school. I remember specifically a scene in which Francie picks out the house she was supposed to be living in for enrollment records purposes and how she subsequently regards it with special loving care every time she walks by it.)

And why in heaven's name does this need to be a felony? That the felony conviction might prevent Ms. Williams-Bolar from being able to get a state license to practice her profession of choice is just so much more grist for the libertarian mill.*

Finally, is it too cheap and glib to point out that this is an argument for a system with a greater degree of school choice? If Ms. Williams-Bolar had been able to use education tax credits and/or vouchers toward the $800 cost of attending the school in the wealthier district, all of this might well never have happened.

*ETA: the one thing that gives me pause about this case is that if there's an argument for denying licenses to any type of professional based on prior felony convictions, it's in the case of teachers and school aides. At the same time, however, it is also illegal for convicted felons to teach kickboxing classes at the local YWCA and can make it more difficult to get barber's or cosmetologist's license. At a gut level, I find none of this necessary for retributivist reasons, and though I lack the data, I also doubt that any of this does much to serve in the way of deterrence.

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