Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely.
In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?”
Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay.
He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term.
As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
In recent Change.org articles, writers reported on two cases where students were arrested for inarguably minor issues:
When a 15-year-old Wisconsin student was handcuffed and hauled to jail after an assistant school principal accused him of stealing $2.60 cafeteria chicken nuggets, outrage erupted. Local media outlets had a field day with the ludicrous story (charges against the teen were eventually dropped).
But if the case of the "Great Chicken Nugget Heist" had particularly absurd parameters, unfortunately, such events are far more common than most of us might like to think. We've written here before about the 12-year-old girl that New York cops handcuffed in her Queens classroom for doodling on a desk. ("I love my friends Abby and Faith," the perpetrator had written before drawing a smiley face, in green Magic Marker.) And the list goes on. Right now, there are more cops patrolling the halls of New York City schools than there are monitoring Washington, DC. Or Las Vegas. Or any other number of large cities across the nation."
The Economist article notes the movement towards reduction and non-custodial penalties for non-violent offenders in other states:
Since the recession threw their budgets into turmoil, many states have decided to imprison fewer people, largely to save money. Mississippi has reduced the proportion of their sentences that non-violent offenders are required to serve from 85% to 25%. Texas is making greater use of non-custodial penalties. New York has repealed most mandatory minimum terms for drug offences. In all, the number of prisoners in state lock-ups fell by 0.3% in 2009, the first fall since 1972. But the total number of Americans behind bars still rose slightly, because the number of federal prisoners climbed by 3.4%.
A less punitive system could work better, argues Mark Kleiman of the University of California, Los Angeles. Swift and certain penalties deter more than harsh ones. Money spent on prisons cannot be spent on more cost-effective methods of crime-prevention, such as better policing, drug treatment or probation.