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May 4, 2012

How should we assess disparate sentences for very disparate crimes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post article, which is headlined "Washington area judges wrestle with how much time for wildly different crimes." Here is how the article starts:

Who is the worse person — the mother who drywalls her three little girls into a bedroom for several hours, or the politician who steals $350,000 from children?  Who is more deserving of severe punishment — the trusted archivist who steals hundreds of the nation’s treasured historical objects and hawks them on eBay, or the developer who stuffs politicians’ pockets with more than $400,000 in bribes intended to win support for building projects?

In one 24-hour period in Washington area courtrooms, wildly different offenses in prominent cases produced extremely varied punishments, raising the question: What crimes deserve greater punishment than others, and how should that be determined?

Readers are encouraged to guess, before clicking through to find the answer from the article, which of these four DC-area scoundral will be serving the longest period in prison.  These additional comments from the article provides more food for thought along the way:

Michele Roberts, a longtime defense lawyer in the District, [says] "sentencing is the most difficult part of a judge’s job: No matter what, someone will think each of today’s sentences is too harsh or too lenient.”

By popular consensus, violent crimes receive harsher punishment than white-collar offenses. “When you shoot, kill or rape someone, that’s very serious conduct and different from corruption,” Roberts says. “But there’s a class element involved in a lot of these distinctions. Murder is still murder; it doesn’t matter what your class is if you’re convicted of it. But the robber of a convenience store is likely to get a lot more time than someone who committed accounting fraud, even if it involved a million dollars.”...

Punishments for nonviolent crimes have increased dramatically in recent years, yet “the rationales used by judges in their decisions are all over the map,” says Erin Kelly, a philosophy professor at Tufts University who studies theories of justice and punishment.

“Most people would find the idea of stealing money with a weapon more threatening than embezzling money from a business,” Kelly says, “but if you think of the social damage caused by stealing huge amounts of money, you can see a real discrepancy in the punishments we assign.”...

Even King Solomon, whose judging, according to the Bible, caused God to call him the wisest of kings, had mainly to discern good from bad; he didn’t have to measure out his justice in months of prison.

May 4, 2012 at 08:42 PM | Permalink


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I predicted that the sentences would go, from harshest to most lenient: mother who drywalled her kids; politician who took bribes; EBay auctioner; and briber developer. I was almost, but not quite, totally wrong.

Posted by: Paul | May 5, 2012 12:00:22 PM

Under 123D, a murderer may go home. A shoplifter may be summarily executed. It makes sense to send home a child that killed an abusive parent, who had no other behavior problems, with tight supervision on the outside, to hedge against missing data about the person. It makes sense to execute a drug kingpin, we know has murdered many, when caught for shoplifting.

We are moving the guidelines focus from the crime to the person. One must do that because there are 20 million crimes and 2 million prosecutions. So, when you have the person, you can prevent 1000's of crimes by incapacitation.

Retribution is Iraqi village culture shit from the authors of the Bible, not just a totally incompetent failure at protecting us, but unlawful in this secular nation. That Iraqi culture works at the village level, where everyone knows each other. It increasingly fails as the size of the jurisdiction grows, totally failing in big cities.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 6, 2012 4:18:44 PM

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