The Corner

It’s Not Long Enough

Eli — In general I like posts like the one you put up below. It’s reasoned, reasonable, fact-filled, morally grounded, and counter-intuitive. So I say this with all the respect and admiration in the world: Feh.

Your three penologists’ criteria are good and fine (though it sounds like the beginning of a Catskills joke: “Three penologists walk into a bar . . .” The punchline could even be, “It’s not long enough!”). But they leave out some broader questions of justice. Madoff’s victims have been violated in a particularly horrible way, particularly in the way his behavior poisons public trust in the system itself. It is one thing to be mugged or robbed. It is quite another to feel as if you’ve done everything right and socked away your money responsibly only to see it stolen by a man who has gotten to enjoy quite a plush life. As you say, virtually any possible sentence would amount to a life sentence, including the twelve years. But what you call showmanship is no doubt for many of the victims a right and proper acknowledgment of the crime perpetrated against them. The sentence was the statutory maximum, according to the Wall Street Journal. I have no problem with a judge giving Madoff the maximum sentence possible. If that happens to be 150 years, so be it. If it was 500 years, I wouldn’t mind a bit.

I should also add that I’m not sure I entirely buy your point about deterrence. The minds of very smart criminals are probably very complex, if for no other reason than the fact that crime is generally a stupid thing to get caught up in (which is why you very rarely see guys with perfect SAT scores screaming at the camera on COPS). Conveying a sense that the system will have no respect for you and your station, that if you get caught the system will be cold to your plight, seems to me a worthwhile message to send, even if it’s of only marginal utility. It’s also a good message to send to people further down the socioeconomic station who believe that the system is rigged against them.

A 150-year sentence pales in comparison to being made whole, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s better than 75 years, too.

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