Question of the day:
Would you prefer to be a convicted rich law offender or a convicted poor one?
Silly me. What a stupid question.
First off, rich guys(1) get all lawyered up and have a much better shot at getting off in the first place. But let's put that aside; what I want to focus on here is what happens after the guilty verdict—i.e., what price does the criminal pay for his crime?
It was the notoriously lenient sentence by—and, even more so, the reasoning behind, it of--Judge Aaron Persky in the Brock Turner rape case that set this essay in motion. Turner, a blond, blue-eyed Stanford University undergraduate from a well-to-do family, was sentenced—for three felony convictions—to a jail term of six months and three years of probation. The judge in his decision several times cited character letters on the criminal's behalf:
I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the impact statements that have been – or the, really, character letters that have been submitted do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction.
Persky specifically cites the character letter from a former schoolmate, Leslie Rasmussen. The Cut gives us the gist of it:
[S]he includes a photo of Turner smiling and says there’s no way Brock could ever be a rapist, because “he was always the sweetest to everyone,” going so far as to call “the whole thing a huge misunderstanding.” She blames accusations of campus rape on political correctness . . . .(2)
Another character letter in support of Turner came from his father, Dan. Again I turn to the Cut:
In the letter, Dan Turner refuses to acknowledge that his son has raped anyone; instead, he calls the brutal scene behind the dumpster "the events of Jan. 17th and 18th" and "20 minutes of action" that "deeply altered" Brock Turner's life. (Nowhere does Dan Turner mention the possible effects those 20 minutes had on the life of Brock's victim.) He spends five full sentences discussing the fact that Brock, who used to enjoy "a big ribeye steak" and his "favorite pretzels and chips," has lost his appetite since he was convicted of sexual assault.(3)
So, six months imprisonment (most likely reduced to three with time off for good behavior), being thrown out of college, and losing one's appetite—punishment enough?
Economist John R. Lott Jr. might think that the punishment is too much. After all, according to Lott, “[I]t is through the loss of reputation that the wealthy really pay for their crimes.”(4) And the poor? Well,
The problem is that reputational penalties are much less important for those who have less to lose — those on the lowest rung of the ladder can’t be punished much this way. Unfortunately, that is why locking up people in prison might be a very important way of deterring those who have nothing else to lose.(5)
It is thanks to thinking like Lott’s that we have two standards of juridical punishments in this country. The rich are treated as though they live in a shame culture (it’s just a pretense because we’re not Japan, where businessmen might commit hara-kiri if their companies go belly-up on their watch or they’re caught with their hand in the corporate till). But since they can shell out some bucks in fines and penalties, they are sent on their way to live with their “shame.” (It’s amazing how soon the shame washes off them and they’re back in the embraces of their buddies.)
The poor, on the other hand, being nobodies, can’t be punished by losing their good name, and since their purse, being trash, would render any seizure unfruitful, exist in a guilt culture, and are slapped behind bars. And not just for rape, but for not paying traffic fines and such.(6)
Janis Joplin sang in “Me and Bobby McGee” that “Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.” The reality is, however, that freedom's just another word for having things to lose.
Note A: Yes, I know that not all rich guys get away with just a bit of shaming:
Legal observers and victims for years have decried the disparity of sentences for white-collar criminals versus others, [Bruce Antkowiak, criminal law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA] said, although that has begun to change since a federal judge in 2009 sentenced Bernie Madoff to prison for 150 years for bilking nearly $65 billion from Wall Street investors.
“Just because the guy who did the stealing was wearing a $2,000 suit and contributed some of the money to some of the best charities in town doesn't make him any less a thief,” Antkowiak said.(7)
Note B: As for the truthfulness and reliability of character statements, here’s veteran British crime reporter Duncan Campbell:
I met one chap who, having decided he was not cut out for armed robbery like many of his north London contemporaries, would do his bit for them by throwing himself into the Thames and being rescued by whoever was on trial at the time, so he could then pop up as a character witness: “This man saved my life, your honour.”(8)
(1) “Rich guys” used as a shorthand for rich people, celebrities, the generally well-connected, and privileged.
(4) Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-baked Theories Don't
(6) See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/opinion/sunday/is-it-a-crime-to-be-poor.html?emc=edit_th_20160612&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=67623383&_r=2
Also see my earlier post “Que Bella Voce”:
Update (Tuesday, June 28, 2016):
"The Judge of the Brock Turner Trial Approved a Harsher Sentence for a Latino Defendant"