August 21, 2020

Unequal Justice

 As is my habit, I listened to NPR this morning. I was struck by a remark by newscaster Korva Coleman on the 9 A.M. newscast. Introducing a brief story about the imminent sentencing of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, she informed listeners, “They could spend months behind bars.”

Months! Imagine that! The rich and connected pay a half-million-dollar bribe to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California, and they may spend months in jail. Had they been a couple of black youths who robbed the corner liquor store of $200, they likely would have been sent to prison for years. Those black miscreants would have lacked the legal services Loughlin and Mossimo can afford.

Of course, rich people don’t knock over liquor stores; they commit nicer, “white collar” crimes. They employ expensive lawyers, and, if convicted at all, they receive light sentences in country-club prisons or are confined for a time to their own mansions with their own hired help.

For now, I want to ignore the privilege or the lack of privilege that individual lawbreakers may have experienced in life, as well as the effects—both positive and negative—of incarceration. Instead, I want to consider the crimes themselves.

Robbing a liquor store is decidedly antisocial and deserves punishment. Bribing college officials to advance the prospects of your unqualified children is also damnable. How do these crimes differ?

The robbers appropriated property not their own and directly terrorized an innocent party or two. Assuming the robbery was not part of a widespread crime wave, most people are inclined to pay little attention to it and do not feel personally terrified. People might even have some sympathy for the underprivileged defendants.

The rich who practice bribery to achieve their desires terrify no one. What they do, however, is undermine the mechanisms of civil society. Whereas the robbers disobey society’s rules, those who illicitly use their wealth and position to obtain what they do not deserve both disobey society’s rules and subvert faith in the fairness of society itself. They are, I think, of greater danger to the body politic. And they go to prison (maybe) for just months?

The penalties we impose for various crimes are, to put it nicely, screwed up. People are incensed by some particular crime and call for unreasonably harsh sentences that lawmakers dutifully enact without consideration of the seriousness of the infraction with regard to other infractions. In general, “violent” crimes and crimes likely to be committed by the underclasses are harshly punished, and the crimes of the wealthy and well-connected are subjected to only modest punishment.

It is time to rethink all sentences for crimes, ranking them according to the harm they inflict and specifying punishments commensurate with that harm. This should be carried out at all levels of government.

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