by Lucy Steigerwald
December 05, 2015

On December 1, journalist Radley Balko published a short piece at his Washington Post blog headlined “The age of ‘pre-crime’ has arrived.” In the post, Balko describes how LA County may emulate other cities and begin sending letters home to men whose license plates have merely been scanned in areas where street-walking sex workers have been known to congregate. These license plate readers are bad and potentially dystopian enough, but adding Puritanical shaming to the mix is truly bad policy.

However, Balko’s headline suggests pre-crime has only just arrived. Whether that was the intention or not, the sad truth is that American justice has long involved punishing people before they have committed a crime. This is aptly demonstrated in the PATRIOT Act’s beefing up up of surveillance powers that were already bad enough when focused on a narrower group of suspects. PATRIOT made them broad and powerful, but still easy to accept as just the way things are now. We got used to Gitmo and indefinite detainment, we got used to being spied on.

PATRIOT is strange. People worried about for a few years under George W. Bush, but mostly forgot about its powers between the election of Barack Obama, and the National Security Agency (NSA) revelations courtesy of Edward Snowden in 2013. Now, people might argue that having their data collected is not a punishment. However, neither are those creepy “Dear John” letters. They are just a sign from the powers that be that they are watching. If that doesn’t bother you on principle and on potential chilling effect of speech, what will?

There are other gifts of 9/11 that do a little more than just spy. Some of them, such as the no-fly list, also restrict movements of people who have never been charged or even convicted of a crime.

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