On Friday, Internet pioneer and open information activist Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Swartz was under indictment for logging into JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, and rapidly downloading those articles with the intent to make them public. If Swartz had lived to be convicted of the charges against him, he faced 50 years or more in a federal prison.
To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:
- Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
- Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
- Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse.
- Knowingly Spreading AIDS: A person who “after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and receiving actual notice of that fact, knowingly donates or sells, or knowingly attempts to donate or sell, blood, semen, tissues, organs, or other bodily fluids for use by another, except as determined necessary for medical research or testing” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
- Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
- Genocidal Eugenics: A person who “imposes measures intended to prevent births” within a particular racial, ethnic or religious group or who “subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part” faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, provided their actions did not result in a death.
- Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources . . . to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
- Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death.
- Threatening The President: A person who threatens to kill the President, the President-elect, the Vice President or the Vice President-elect faces a maximum prison term of 5 years.
- Assaulting A Supreme Court Justice: Assaults against very senior government officials, including Members of Congress, cabinet secretaries or Supreme Court justices are punished by a maximum prison sentence of just one year. If the assault “involved the use of a dangerous weapon, or personal injury results,” the maximum prison term is 10 years.
It should be noted that Swartz faced such a stiff sentence because prosecutors charged him with multiple federal crimes arising out of his efforts to download and distribute academic papers. Similarly, a person who robbed a bank, sold a slave, and then rounded out their day by breaking Justice Scalia’s nose would also risk spending the next 50 years in prison, just like Aaron Swartz did.
Indeed, if Swartz’s story reveals anything, it is the power of prosecutors to pressure defendants into plea bargains by stringing multiple criminal charges together and threatening outlandish prison sentences. Whatever one thinks of Swartz’s actions, which were likely illegal and probably should be illegal, it is difficult to justify treating him as if he were a more dangerous criminal than someone who flies into a rage and kills their own brother.