The role of the police departments in this country is changing. Originally lawmen were charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace in society. This meant that after some bad act occurred the police would arrive to sort out the mess. Jails were build as needed to accommodate the increase in our slowly growing prison population.
Over the years the police departments began to take a more proactive role in crime. Police agents actively sought out crime organizations to infiltrate and as “gang members” the police were forced into acting like the people they were investigating. As a result of being undercover these policemen were then, technically, just as guilty as the actual gang members who they are trying to catch. (Aiding and abetting?)
The acceleration of the drug wars marked the first major deviation in police tactics. Originally the nature of crime required a crime to occur before police could get involved. The change in police policy now suggested that the best way to prevent crime was to “get out in front of it”. Police agents would infiltrate drug gangs by the simple expedient of supplying vital ingredients or equipment to aid in the commission of a crime. The reasoning went like this. Sooner or later the gangs would accomplish their nefarious goals so why not accelerate the process? Police would assist the gangs along the way to, say, producing drugs so they can harvest both the drugs and the gangsters in one tidy bundle.
The increase in arrests was impressive. Of course along the way mistakes were made so drugs and money went missing, and successful drug lords lawyered up and went free. But you can’t win them all. There is no way to tell whether society got a net benefit from police assistance in drug manufacturing but the prison system began to swell.
The most recent iteration in police activity in “getting ahead of the crime” involves the Internet. By a strange quirk in the law a shareware service called LimeWire, with over 100 million users worldwide, is providing a virtually unlimited resource for inmate production. The service was originally started as a music club whose members were able to share their favorite music with each other. Members would upload their songs or albums to the server so others could download them. As technology changed video sharing became as popular as audio. Police cyber cops recognized a potentially huge bonanza of fresh inmates.
These new criminals are being harvested as a result of a quirk in the way a law “encouraging child sexual abuse” is interpreted. By some absurdly defective reasoning it is legal to watch anything online your heart desires, including child pornography, but, as incredible as this seems, if you download an illegal video for viewing later you have just committed a crime. This subtle distinction has put every member of LimeWire at risk and here is how.
Let’s say you are looking for a classic video called “Lolita” starring James Mason. The LimeWire server performs a search for keywords and produces a list of movies to choose from. In order to see if what you want is in the list you must download the video to view it. Whether the video you got was what you were looking for not, or whether the movie was a Lolita movie starring a child pornography actor makes the commission of a crime possible without the downloader even knowing in advance whether the movie was what he was looking for, or more importantly, illegal. As a result of this absurd police practice thousands of people nationwide are falling victim to and are having their lives destroyed by accident.
It is up to society to decide whether it is better served by a police department actively seeking to add to our prison population by prosecuting nonviolent accidental victims of a shareware service, or not.
One thing is for sure. Affording the 2 billion we spend weekly housing prisoners in this country is busting budgets in every state. Scarce resources are going begging for more socially beneficial projects. Allowing the police department unlimited funds to prosecute “thought crimes” may be the stupidest thing we Americans can do ourselves going forward.