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September 28, 2006

The challenge of mapping out sentencing justice

An interesting federal sentencing yesterday in Connecticut, covered by the New York Times and by the Boston Globe, highlights that rarely is everyone content with a sentencing outcome.  Here are the basics from the Times: "A map dealer who stole nearly 100 rare maps valued at $3 million from Yale and other institutions was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on Wednesday after a federal judge credited him for helping the authorities retrieve most of the items taken." 

The Globe reports that "prosecutors said the sentence was appropriate" in light of the defendant's post-crime coopertation.  But, as detailed in this Hartford Courant story, some crime victims walked away unhappy:

The librarians spoke eloquently and from the heart.  They evoked the words of our Founding Fathers and described how Forbes Smiley, responsible for one of the great map heists in recent times, had become a symbol: of the vulnerability of libraries, the merchandising of history and the fragility of the public trust.  Hours later, the librarians walked out of the federal courtroom dejected.  Smiley, the map dealer who crossed two continents looting the world's finest libraries of nearly 100 maps, was sentenced Wednesday to 3½ years in prison....

The leniency showed Smiley was taken hardest by the British Library, which had asked [District Judge] Arterton to go beyond the sentencing guidelines.  The library suspects Smiley of stealing more maps and thinks that for all his cooperating, he has more secrets to share. All of the libraries except the Newberry Library in Chicago are thought to be missing additional maps.

September 28, 2006 at 06:32 AM | Permalink

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Comments

In the public dialog on proportionality, the media too often presents the understandably strong views of those most closely affected by crime as the baseline. That tendency was evident in the coverage of both the Fastow and Smiley sentencings. In the former case, I heard a report that featured a man who lost his retirement savings expressing his disappointment that Fastow did not go to prison for life. In the Smiley case, the most wonderful professionals in the world, librarians, were understandably deeply offended by his actions and also upset by their apparently well founded suspicion that not all his misdeeds had been uncovered, despite his cooperation.

I hope I do not in any way denigrate the genuine pain and suffering these people have experienced when I suggest that first degree murderers deserve more severe punishment than Fastow, bad as his actions were, and that we need a punishment scheme that allows us room to express the differences among offenses and offenders. This is a very hard systemic question and this style of media coverage tips the discussion toward a very atomistic view in which the problems of saliency and false anchor points skew the discussion in a very counterproductive way.

I also think that too many people underestimate how significant a punishment 3 or 6 years in prison really is. Perhaps those of us involved in criminal justice do not do a good enough job in communicating the real pain and complete disruption of one's life that attends every period of incarceration. Three or six years is a lot of days without family, productive work and freedom. I appreciate that the bounded suffering of a determinate sentence does not usually feel like adequate compensation for the feelings and reality of unbounded loss that victims reasonably feel at the time the transgressor is sentenced, but that is why punishment is the prerogative of the state in a civilized society - that choice is, in part, a commitment strategy ex ante to help us act from our better natures ex post, at the moment when it is hardest for us, as individuals, to find the balance among mercy, forgiveness and retribution that we might otherwise seek.

Posted by: Ian Weinstein | Sep 29, 2006 10:09:55 AM

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