On July 19th, it was reported that school administrators from the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania sent a letter to parents whose children had acquired more than $12.50 in lunch debt. The school threatened to refer families who hold such debt to Children and Youth Services, which may result in children being separated from their parents and placement in foster care.
Lunch shaming is nothing new in the United States, whose public school system has become a bloated, bureaucratic maelstrom of status quo and defeat. Prior to the incident in Luzerne County, an incident was reported in Indiana that a six-year-old girl was sent to the back of the line, after getting a hot meal on her tray. Her account did not have enough to cover the lunch and her hot meal was replaced with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Such instances have occurred for years, between letters being sent home to students being subjected to minimal meals and chastisement in front of their peers.
Reform is desperately needed on this front, as well as the entire education system. But, what should trouble people more than the practice of lunch shaming itself is the manner by which unelected bureaucrats may take advantage of an overcriminalized society.
More is Not Always Better
If one were to ask how many federal laws exist, you would get a wide range of answers. It is telling, on many levels, that the number of laws cannot be nailed down; a significant red flag that we have been ignoring for many years. In 2015, an estimate put it “at least 5,000 federal criminal laws, with 10,000-300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally.” Those regulations are particularly concerning, given that most of them are written and enforced by federal agencies (i.e. unelected bureaucrats). When you mix in the laws and regulations of fifty separate states, it becomes a carnival of dire consequences that would make Ray Bradbury blush.
Consider further, the rate at which new laws have been pouring into the US Code. “In 2003, there were only 4,000 offences that carried criminal penalties. By 2013, that number had grown by 21 percent to 4,850.” As pointed out by the Heritage Foundation:
Despite this rampant overcriminalization, Congress continues to criminalize at an average rate of one new crime for every week of every year. Practically all inherently wrongful conduct has been criminalized several times over, yet from 2000 through 2007, Congress enacted 452 new criminal offenses (which does not even count the innumerable crimes defined by agency regulation under delegations of authority from Congress).
This really should not come as a surprise to many though. Historically, governing requires the occasional and even forceful redoubling of lawmakers’ grip on power. Creating crises and offering solutions is a part of that playbook. In the context of law and order, when a nation has run out of criminals to prosecute and use as a part of fear tactics, the law must be changed to create more criminals. Such practices turn millions of innocent persons, virtually overnight, into criminals. To make matters worse, most of these crimes are committed without criminal intent or knowledge of the law itself, creating a far more dangerous situation.
Weaponizing the Law
With the War on Drugs, beginning with Nixon and gaining significant momentum under Reagan and Clinton, America has seen the damaging effects of legislation designed to target political enemies, racial and ethnic groups, and those participating in otherwise victimless behavior. John Ehrlichman, a Nixon aide who spent time in prison following Watergate, explained the War on Drugs in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Since then, the War and Drugs, War on Terror, and law and order in general have been leveraged nationally for political gain, while hundred of thousands of otherwise non-violent persons have been left in a bloated, for-profit prison system.
While the War on Drugs is the pinnacle of weaponized legislation and a career politician’s dream, it is not unusual for bureaucrats to leverage existing laws to meet their own needs. Aside from the lunch shaming incident, schools around the country have routinely contacted child services as a means of forcing parents to comply with the school’s wishes, including transferring their children to different schools.
A report from November of 2018 found the problem to be widespread. The leverage of open investigations into families is used as intimidation over behavioral issues, issues of medication, and families who have opted for homeschooling. Many of these investigations target low-income families, who do not have the means to fight such actions adequately. With so many laws and regulations on the books, one does not have to wonder how an increasingly growing authority can bend the public to its will.
The Purpose of the Law
The reality of an overcriminalized society, like the United States, is one in which laws can be weaponized and deployed at the discretion of a few to meet their needs. But, in a free society, the purpose of the law is not to terrorize or bully citizens with the intention of a designed outcome or behavioral patterns that please an elite few. The law must protect the rights of the individual and nothing more. If even one person or, worse yet, the government is able to benefit from legislation, particularly at the expense of the life, liberty, and property of another, than the law is invalid.
The issue of lunch shaming must be adequately addressed, as should the entire public school system. But greater legislative reform is required across all levels of government to create palpable change in our society. Until then, we are all potential criminals who are one ambitious official away from legal quagmires.
In the meantime, we can find solace in the actions of kindhearted people. The CEO of La Colombe Coffee in Philadelphia offered to pay the balance of the lunch debt for the families that received the threatening letters. After initally turning down the offer, school officials have reportedly accepted the donation to wipe out the debt. If we cannot believe in the common sense and compassion of our governments, we can certainly believe in the compassion of individuals and communities.