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HARVEY A. SILVERGLATE is counsel to Boston’s Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP, specializing in criminal defense, civil liberties, and academic freedom/student rights law. He is cofounder and member of the board of directors of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and he wrote the “Freedom Watch” column for the fabled Boston Phoenix “alternative weekly” newspaper until it ceased publication in 2013. His work has appeared in the National Law Journal, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Silverglate is co-author of The Shadow University with Alan Charles Kors.
The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague.
Prosecutors can “indict a ham sandwich,” we hear, and laugh at the absurdity. Yet the joke captures a truth: federal prosecutors wield enormous power over us all. And the federal criminal justice system is so stacked in favor of the government that shocking numbers of innocent people have been sent to prison.