News broke yesterday that criminal charges have been filed against three government workers who allegedly concealed and/or conspired to hide the extent of toxic lead contamination in the City of Flint’s water supply from the public. As the New York Times reported:
The charges against the three defendants — Michael Prysby, a district engineer with the State Department of Environmental Quality; Stephen Busch, a district supervisor in the same department; and Michael Glasgow, the city’s utilities manager — included tampering with evidence contained in reports on lead levels in city water, and the two state officials were also charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
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Among other things, the workers were accused of distorting the results by directing residents to run their water before it was tested and failing to collect samples from some houses they were required to test. That had the effect of making the levels of lead in the water supply appear far less dangerous than they were, and falsely reassured officials who could have intervened months earlier, as well as residents, that the water was safe.
While it’s not surprising that criminal charges have been filed for such egregious violations of the law and public trust, what’s truly appalling is that the charged felonies reportedly carry maximum prison terms of only five years. This is a much shorter sentence than Michigan law provides for violent crimes against children.
For example, first-degree child abuse — i.e., when a person knowingly causes serious physical or serious mental harm to a child — is a Class A felony for which the maximum punishment is life in prison.
Second-degree child abuse — i.e., when a person’s omission or reckless act causes serious physical or mental harm to a child, or a person knowingly or intentionally commits an act likely to cause serious physical or mental harm to a child regardless of whether harm results, or a person knowingly or intentionally commits an act that is cruel to a child regardless of whether harm results — carries a maximum 10-year prison term, even for the first offense. Subsequent offenses carry terms of up to 20 years each.
In light of the serious health and mental harms that will almost certainly result from the failure of government officials to protect Flint’s children from lead poisoning, there are no justifiable policy bases for these criminal defendants, if convicted, to enjoy less severe punishments than child abusers. If they are convicted, child abusers are precisely what they will have been proven to be.
The Times reports that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is not finished with his office’s criminal investigations into the Flint lead contamination crisis. “These charges are only the beginning,”’ Schuette reportedly said. “There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.”
While it’s reassuring to know that law enforcement officials are seriously pursuing prosecutions against criminals who are responsible for this unforgivable calamity, prosecutors must treat these horrendous failures as serious violent crimes to fulfill the vital policy of deterring similar crimes against innocent and vulnerable children in the future.