Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Uncertain Justice

Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for lying, trying to be corrupt, and maybe even being corrupt. As far as I can tell, he has no prior convictions. If he had shot someone or broken into someone's house, he probably would have gotten a much shorter sentence. He might even have been given probation. But a judge, many of whose fellow judges got their jobs because of their connections with politicians, wanted to make a statement about official corruption.

What is that statement? That if you are a deal-making governor and get caught, you go to jail, but if you don't get caught, you get a building named after you? That if you are a Chicago politician and get caught, you have to mop a prison floor in Indiana, but if you don't get caught, you get a job at a big law firm and travel to China? The judge didn't have to remind us that the most important thing is to not get caught. We already knew that.

There is a lot of research indicating that the death penalty doesn't deter people from committing capital crimes. Other research shows that in general criminal penalties don't deter criminals. Why? Because most criminals don't even know what the penalties are for the crimes they commit, and even if they do know, they don't care. They aren't rational businesspeople evaluating potential investments. They are dumb crooks, doing what they think of doing to make it through life. They know they might get caught, but they also know they probably won't, so they don't give a lot of thought to the length of the sentence they might get.

Politicians are mostly a whole lot smarter than common crooks. They are usually college educated, articulate, and socially adept. But there isn't much reason to believe they think about the sentences they might get for being corrupt. Like street crooks, they know they probably won't get caught, so why worry about the sentence?

And let's not forget about the white-collar criminals who made fabulous amounts of money and profited from the destruction of the financial system, leaving the entire country in a deep, long-lasting recession. None of them have been prosecuted. They knew, from the savings and loan collapse, that their chances of getting caught were slim. Why pay attention to penalties?

The judge who sentenced Blagojevich may think he accomplished something more significant than thrilling the crowd by throwing a man to the lions. But unless the likelihood of criminals getting caught increases, the penalty for getting caught really won't much matter to the politicians, judicial aspirants, and crooked fund managers who are already working their way into positions which they can take advantage of.

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