The Real Jean Valjean

Look, it’s not like you can’t find a heaping load of unjust judicial decisions in any decade of American life you care to name, and like as not, it’s an African-American at the receiving end. Still, the conviction and sentencing of Kelley Williams-Bolar for lying so that her two daughters could attend school in the district where their father lives is something of a milestone. (Via 11d)

All professionals may have to face their own little moment of truth where they have to decide whether to follow orders or commit a greater crime against human beings. It doesn’t matter if the law says you have to sentence her. Don’t. Break the law, resign the bench, refuse. There’s no criminal here except the broken system. If you must sentence someone, sentence the legislature in Ohio. Sentence the superintendent in both districts. Sentence the idiot bureaucrats who use attendance or some similar metric to set the funding of schools, giving them an incentive to demand enforcement of these kinds of policies. If they’re not guilty, no one is.

If you must have a policy against such a thing, don’t ever enforce it. Just hope the policy is enough.

The whole story underscores a point I’ve made before. If you don’t understand why there is a level of populist disdain for the actions of government in the United States, this kind of story should help to explain it. It does no good to lay out the catechism of good government (roads built, services offered, libraries funded) against this memorable narrative of singular contempt for the desperate choices of one person. Any more than it would have helped Inspector Javert to lay out the resume of criminals he’d jailed in order to justify hounding a man over a loaf of bread. It may be an exceptional case, but it’s an exception that suggests a rule underneath it, that at present judges and officials and police regard breaking their rules as more important than living up to our obligations. The more of that there is, the more that some kind of rush to the barricades has an appeal.

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6 Responses to The Real Jean Valjean

  1. jfruh says:

    It’s a small nit, but the kids in question were using their mother’s father’s (i.e., their grandfather’s) adress, not their father’s. I agree with you on the fundamental lunacy of it all. When I was a senior in high school, my mother, with whom I lived most of the week, moved from the city to the suburbs; I had intended to change my address to my father’s, who lived in the city, so I could graduate from the city magnet high school I had been attending. When I told the administration I was moving, they told me not to worry about it and simply changed my address to the school’s address in their records.

    However, I wonder if this would have been so easy going the other way, from suburbs to city. In many places the whole reason that distinct suburban school districts exist are to keep poor and minority students out; I’m guessing that’s the dynamic at play here. On that note, call my cynical but I highly doubt that the sort of people currently most vocal in modern political life with their “populist disdain for the actions of government in the United States” would have significant problems with this sentence; I imagine they would save their disdain for “activist” government attempts to bus students from one socioeconomic realm to another, and would view this decision as protecting a community from outsiders trying to exploit its well-earned wealth, which is reflected in its superior schools.

  2. David08 says:

    Unfortunately, 10 undeserved days in prison is no milestone at all for poor prosecutorial judgment, and Ohio has nothing on, say, Mississippi. Look up Steven Hayne.

  3. crystalpyramid says:

    WTF? I was under the impression that everyone did that, but now it’s punishable with a jail sentence in this case? And how on earth did they convince a jury that it’s grand theft — I would think that it might be fraud, but theft?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Jfruh: I think you’re right that the most vocal and mobilized anti-government populists today in the US would disdain this particular case, not the least because it involves an African-American woman. But I think there’s something else complicated going on underneath the surface of that, a sort of aggregating effect that collects all stories and incidences of bureaucrats and officials not understanding the morality and facts of everyday life. Even when partisans reflect or refute a given story, it ends up still adding to that aggregate feeling in the long run. Say, for example, when conservatives pushed back on the story about how George H.W. Bush didn’t know that the UPC could be scanned in a grocery line, the story still went into an aggregate consciousness as one more piece of evidence that “they” don’t know anything about “us”, in a relatively non-specific way. That aggregate feeling feeds into Tea Party organizing, but they’re not the only ones who feel that way, and that’s arguably not the only political mobilization around that feeling which could plausibly occur.

  5. nord says:

    Well, would you view it differently if she homeschooled her children and didn’t pay local school taxes to her corrupt and failing school district, but rather used the money for good books and field trips?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Not paying the taxes at all would be an issue–but I’d be find if she paid her taxes in a neighboring district with similar rates and then homeschooled her kid wherever. 🙂

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