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Greenfield: Jail not right for SAT cheating

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Scott H. Greenfield, who runs the blog Simple Justice, is a criminal defense attorney in Manhattan who lives in Nassau County.

The pressure to get into a good college is brutal across Long Island, but in few places is it as unbearable as Great Neck North. That some students allegedly stooped to extremes -- paying a recent grad to take the SAT for them -- isn't nearly as surprising as that it hasn't happened before. Assuming, of course, that it hasn't. Six students from the school have been accused so far of hiring a ringer, and an ongoing investigation may reveal more students and schools.

What makes the shockingly wrong conduct of these students so offensive is that others struggled and sacrificed for their achievements, while these six tried to beat the system. The pressure is great, but it's like that for everyone. They aren't entitled to a special way in, even if they think otherwise.

The six allegedly engaged in extremely serious misconduct, cheating of the most serious order. There appears little doubt that there will, and should, be serious consequences for this misconduct. About this, there's little dispute. The process by which this misconduct is best and most appropriately addressed, however, is very much in question.

If they did it, the students who have yet to get into college will have little chance of being accepted to the colleges of their dreams. It's even possible that they will find no acceptance at any reputable college. Nobody wants a cheater.

For the students already in college, lying or cheating to gain admittance usually results in the collegiate death penalty: dismissal. The upshot is that the very goal of this misconduct, acceptance into a top school, will likely be forever denied them. And so it should be, as their seats are taken by students who earned them honestly. The consequence is proportional to the wrong.

But thwarting their educational dreams for the future isn't the path now being pursued. Instead, their graduation march has been replaced with the perp walk, as District Attorney Kathleen Rice intends to prosecute them for a misdemeanor; if found guilty, they could face a year in jail. While cheating is serious, and paying for someone else to take the SAT for you is extraordinarily serious, saddling these six with criminal records is overkill.

Clearly, they shouldn't benefit from their misconduct, and a consequence must be found both to punish them for such a flagrant wrong as well as to send a message to any other students -- or parents -- who think they, too, are special enough to cheat the system. And the consequence of never being acceptable to a decent college is a very harsh punishment.

But it's critical that we not confuse students who have otherwise harmed no one with unsalvageable delinquents. Their lack of prior records indicates that these were good, if a bit entitled, young people who have royally screwed up. They need consequences, but not a scarlet letter. They need punishment, but not dismissal to the permanent underclass.

The criminal justice system is a blunt object. Involvement with it can mean an extremely difficult, if not hopeless, future. As they check off the hypothetical box of "unemployable criminal" on job applications in the future, was their misconduct so heinous and harmful to others that it should taint their entire destiny? They did a bad thing. A very bad thing. But not something that precludes a chance to move beyond it. To permanently mar their future is a disproportionate punishment.

These are teenagers who have made extremely poor decisions. But making poor decisions is the hallmark of being a teenager -- and one of the primary reasons we do not repose full faith in their judgment. Sometimes their judgment stinks, and we only pray they do no permanent harm.

So we should be cautious in the message we send to other high school students. Yes, there are severe consequences for cheating and behaving dishonorably. But we, the adults toward whom they have typical teenage ambivalence, realize that they are not disposable, unworthy of salvage and that their lives shouldn't come to a crashing end. They must get the message about consequences, but they must also get the message that we are not out to destroy them.