I didn’t sit through month after month of testimony in the trial of 12 Atlanta public school teachers and administrators, 11 of whom who have been found guilty. I can’t comment knowledgeably on the relative culpability of, say, Donald Bullock vs. Theresia Copeland, both of whom were found guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced on Monday for up to 20 years in prison.
But speaking generally, prison terms for those convicted in the cheating scandal ought to be measured in months, not in years, and perhaps in the case of low-level teachers, to time served and probation.
Why? In part because the 21 teachers and administrators who previously admitted guilt have already been sentenced to a combination of probation, fines and community service, with none given jail time. That list includes administrators such as Millicent Few and Christopher Waller, who by their own admission played a more central and aggressive role in the conspiracy than did most of those who chose to go to trial.
In part because Superintendent Beverly Hall, whom jurors accurately describe as the orchestrator of the conspiracy, never had to answer to the legal system for her actions. She was excused from trial after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and died before the verdicts were reached. It is fair to say that most of those convicted in court in this case would never have found themselves standing before a judge absent Hall’s coercive form of “leadership.”
And in part, it’s simple justice. After the jury rendered its verdict earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter immediately ordered the 11 guilty defendants handcuffed and taken to jail. “They have made their bed and they’re going to have to lie in it, and it starts today,” he said.
Baxter has been criticized by some for that decision, but I think it was appropriate. At that point the defendants had become criminals, and subject to be treated as such. Hauling them away in handcuffs drove that point home, both to the defendants themselves and to the public. The symbolism was important. In addition, Baxter had warned the defendants and their lawyers repeatedly about the risks they were taking in spurning plea bargains and going to trial, and those risks were real.
As we all know, prosecutors commonly use the threat of prison time to coerce guilty pleas from defendants, thus avoiding the time and public expense of jury trials. I don’t have a problem with that practice, as long as it is kept within reason and not used to bludgeon the innocent into false admissions. In this case, the defendants’ insistence on a trial required jury members to serve a heroic six months’ service, away from their lives, jobs and families.
But if those convicted are sentenced to significant time, a very serious question arises: Are they being punished for what they did, for the crimes that they committed? Or is their punishment for demanding their right to a trial by jury, a right guaranteed them by the Constitution?
There’s a precarious balance between those two questions, and on Monday, it will be Baxter’s job to find it. Justice should be served, but it should be mitigated by mercy.