All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

A Roundup: The Punitive Welfare State

Penalties Suggest the Harsh, Hidden Face of the Welfare State

Ms. Sokolin is a student at Georgetown University Law School.

Laws are typically passed with the promise that they will make life better. Whether or not they succeed, they hit those who disobey with fines, imprisonment, or other penalties.

Few penalties are for actions like murder or fraud which everyone agrees are criminal—because only an estimated one percent of laws deal with these fundamental issues. The great majority of penalties apply to actions most people would probably say aren’t crimes.

The welfare state has expanded in the name of compassion, but it multiplied the number of actions for which people can be punished. A substantial number of people have endured heavy fines or are in prison today, though they harmed no one. The following examples of penalties suggest the harsh, hidden face of the welfare state:

Up to five years in prison for altering, defacing, or mutilating a coin minted at the U.S. Mint. (18 United States Code, section 331)

•       Up to ten years in prison for importing a book or article that a U.S. court considers obscene. (18 United States Code, section 552)

•       Up to six months in prison for commercial use of the characters “Smokey the Bear” or “Woodsy Owl” without authorization by the Secretary of Agriculture. (18 United States Code, sections 711, 711A)

•       Up to $10,000 per day if the owner of a New York City building with over nine units fails to maintain an adequate designated area or receptacle for recycling. (New York City Administrative Code, section 16-324)

•       Up to $500 or 30 days in prison or both for selling shoes on Sunday in North Dakota. (North Dakota Cent. Code 12.1-32-01)

•       Up to three years in prison for possessing a lobster caught by any method other than a conventional trap. (Maine Revised Statutes Annotated, title 123, section 6431)

•       Up to $5,000 for failure to post a permit authorizing the use of a building air-conditioning and ventilating system. (New York City Administrative Code, section 27-194)

•       Up to one year in prison for littering on government rangeland. (43 Code of Federal Regulations, section 4170.2-2)

•       Up to two years in prison for bringing lottery tickets into the United States with the aim of selling them. (18 United States Code, section 1301)

•       Up to $5,000 for failure to identify an elevator bank with a letter of the alphabet. Example: “N” for “North Wing.” (New York City Administrative Code, section 27-393)

•       Up to $1,000 or one year in prison or both for transporting dentures made by someone without a dentistry license. (18 United States Code, section 1821)

•       Up to six months in prison for hunting, trapping, capturing, or willfully disturbing any bird, fish, or wild animal in a wildlife refuge. (18 United States Code, section 41)

•       Up to $1,000 or 30 days in prison or both for possessing feathers of a rare bird. (Oklahoma Statutes Annotated, title. 29, section 7-504)

•       Up to $2,500 or six months in prison or both for selling by telephone without registering with the Attorney General. (California Code Annotated, section 17511.8)

•       Up to $2,500 for the first time and up to $5,000 for each subsequent time that someone moves any goods for pay without a license. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated, section 45:140)

•       Up to $1,000 or up to one year in prison or both for labeling a product as made by blind workers if less than 75 percent of total direct labor was actually performed by blind workers. (California Codes Annotated, section 17522)

•       Up to $500 or three months in prison for repairing a radio or television receiver without a license. (Massachusetts General Laws Annotated, chapter 112, section 87VVV)

•       Up to $100 or 30 days in prison or both for giving a haircut (even a free haircut) without a license. (Connecticut General Statute Annotated, sections 20-234 and 20-236)

•       Up to 60 days in prison for selling liquor between midnight and 7 A.M. (Florida Statutes Annotated, section 562.14)

•       Up to $500 for refusing to leave a government school after insulting a government school teacher, bus driver, or school bureaucrat in the presence of minor children. (Georgia Code Annotated, section 20-2-1182)

•       Up to $1,000 fine or one year in prison or both for bringing honeybee semen into the United States. (7 United States Code, section 281)

As these examples suggest, there isn’t really much compassion in the welfare state.