Thursday, April 8, 2010

To What End?

Prosecutors seek 335 years for Minn.'s Petters

That's the headline of an AP story out of Minneapolis. Here's the first paragraph.
When Minnesota businessman Tom Petters' corporate empire collapsed, the losers in what prosecutors say was a $335 million Ponzi scheme included not just hedge funds, but at least 10 pastors, three missionaries, dozens of retirees and a half-dozen nursing home residents, according to federal court filings.
OK, if he did what they say (which he and his lawyers deny but the jury believed), he's a scumbag slimeball villain who deserves serious punishment.

On the other hand, Bernie Madoff swindled far more people and organizations out of something like 40 times as much money, did far more damage - including serious harm to the national economy, and only has to spend 150 years in prison. Really, why should Petters have to spend 185 more years in custody than Madoff?

What's that? You don't believe Madoff will serve his entire sentence? So it's a sham? And Petters sentence is even more of a sham? How could that be? We're locking these guys up for being dishonest. Surely we wouldn't be dishonest about their sentences.

Of course, these guys won't serve all that time. The sentences are, to put it bluntly, lies. Madoff's sentence is death in prison. That's what the prosecutors want to see Petters get. The thing is, we don't offer that sentence. And while there's a sentence of life, it doesn't seem to have that same cachet. Or maybe it's just that we like to save it only for blue collar criminals.

I've talked about this foolishness before. When Madoff got his time, I wrote this.
Now, let's think for a few minutes. Person on death row killed a couple of people without much remorse in the midst, say, of a spree of robberies. Horrible. Deserves condemnation. Bernie Madoff destroyed the lives and hopes of thousands, inflicted some sort of real harm to millions. He did it with a pen and a smile and a string of accountants. Guy on death row did it with a gun.

Who did more harm? Who's more callous? Who is deserving of more punishment?

We don't kill the Bernie Madoffs, and we shouldn't, not any more than we should kill the vicious street punk or the guy who got in over his head and got scared and . . . . Heck, you know the story.

But 150 years? We know that's a sham. It's not a real sentence. He can't serve it and it doesn't really make any broader point. Now, a life sentence, that's something else: I sentence you to die in prison - however long it takes.
And so it is with Petters. Oh, there may be something aesthetically pleasing about a matching the years to the millions ($335 million/335 years), but sentences aren't supposed to be about providing the prosecutors with with something that would make a nice cover for a toss pillow. They're about deterrence and punishment.

Will Tom's 335 years deter future Ponzi schemers better than Bernie's 150? Better even than 30? I don't see how. Will it actually punish more? Even more surely, no, since the sentences cannot be served. It's piling on for the sake of piling on. But to what end?

If we're honest about it, Bernie Madoff's broken ribs will probably have more deterrent effect than any number of years. They teach that he's just another punk. A sentence that can't be served on the other hand? That teaches that the system's a joke.

Hardly the lesson we want to be sending.

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