I was reading a recent editorial opinion regarding the “compassionate” release request of Bernie Madoff when the news broke about the Rod Blagojevich commutation. I view events like these a bit differently having worked in and around the federal prison system for over three decades.
While I’m a passionate prison reformer railing against our country’s justice and prison systems, the first thing that came to mind was the negative impact the white collar lobby is having on our society and the overall “prison reform” movement.
It’s a bit disturbing when academics and advocates can support and even celebrate the release of high-profile people in the name of prison reform. It might appear admirable, even cerebral to support the concepts of commutation and compassion, but in these specific cases, I beg to differ with the awoken.
Sentencing Guideline Problems No Reason to Release Affluent, Entitled
Prison reform in our country is certainly needed and cases like Alice Johnson, thanks in part to Kim Kardashian, are indicative of what is right with the prison reform movement. For too long our prisons have been filed with our marginalized populations for crimes committed due to many socio-cultural influences including poverty, addiction, and the lack of equal educational and employment opportunities.
One doesn’t need to read the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander to understand how broken our justice and prison systems are. While the federal sentencing guidelines are draconian, they should not be used as justification to release affluent and entitled public figures.
During federal sentencings, judges methodically point to one of the key facets of sentencing, which is “general (or public) deterrence.” Perceptions of leniency may embolden sociopaths to contemplate and orchestrate fraudulent schemes. When I worked in the Federal Witness Protection program, I interacted with sociopaths who had committed murder only to roll over on their subordinates to gain early release. There is no limit to what some will do in an act of self-centeredness.
Problems With ‘Prison Reform’ Movement
What actually caused me to write this editorial was reflecting on the cover the “prison reform” movement has given to people of a high-profile nature. My perception about the reform movement has always been tainted by my experiences, and while it’s now in vogue, it’s not much different than big business.
Justice reform is often exploited to raise money for organizations, stroke egos, pander for votes, and most recently to justify get out of jail cards for the chosen ones. I always wondered how many hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on think tanks, blue ribbon commissions, independent review committees, and other connected Beltway entities with resources that could have been better spent on direct programs and services.
This leniency not only provides cover but enforces the nonsensical rationale that white collar crime is better than other forms of social deviance.
This mentality has infiltrated our culture, but even worse, our legislation, like the recent First Step Act, which discriminates against marginalized populations by allowing white collar individuals incentives based on the nature of their crime and lack of criminal history.
It is similar to the failed “War on Drugs” and “Truth in Sentencing Laws” when politicians realized the benefit of getting votes by treating prison populations differently. People, yes people, are sentenced based on the severity of their crime and should be treated equally once incarcerated.
During my career, I observed this attitude of justification from the white collar population who rationalized that because they didn’t physically “hurt somebody” it was as if they expected some type of beneficial treatment and were better than their incarcerated peers. I always responded to that logic with given the choice of someone taking all my life savings or assaulting me, I’d take my chances with the assault in every situation.
In this capitalistic society, the politicians and others in the reform movement are aiding in this perception that professional people who prey on the more vulnerable from a financial perspective or who game the tax system are less culpable for their behavior.
The more educated and formerly “successful” people who find themselves in federal prison need to understand the impact of their behavior is no less sever or damaging on society as a whole. Their inability to get off their high horse even after their brush with the system is the exact same reason why someone like Bernie Madoff needs to be the poster boy for general deterrence.
I do have the feeling though that somewhere Roger Stone is slapping someone a high five!
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Jack Donson is a retiree of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who co-founded Prisonology. He has over three decades experience in federal prison issues and is a federal prison reformer, advocate, and consultant who testifies around the country and provides training to attorneys and justice professionals.