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Until We Can Level Down, Level Up

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A public defender says that some people are taking the wrong lesson from the DuPont heir who was given no jail time after pleading guilty to raping a child:

If there’s one rule that you can live by in criminal court, it’s that if there’s something remotely objectionable happening in favor of a defendant, a prosecutor will object to it. So when two prosecutors act as if this isn’t that unusual or shocking, you know that maybe what the judge did isn’t so outrageous after all.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with wealth. Mr. Richards got to go home because he needed treatment and he was able to afford to go to a clinic in MA to get that.

The real takeway from this should be not that Mr. Richards got a break, but that he got fair treatment for himself because he was rich and thus, there are hundreds who deserve the same but can’t get it because they are poor.

Just because he is the scion of a wealthy family doesn’t mean that his sentence wasn’t just. We mustn’t punish him for that. We must be punished for creating a system that encourages this disparity. We fail to adequately fund prisons so they can have adequate rehabilitative programs for all needy inmates. We fail to consider anything that is slightly nuanced and deviates from the mass-hysteria of instant and lifelong incarceration for anyone accused of serious crimes.

I agree with this to a point. Certainly, the conditions of American prisons are a disgrace, and even people who commit serious crimes should not be reflexively seen as irredeemable monsters.

Having said that, however, I don’t really buy the defender’s argument here:

  • I’m not at all convinced that the sentence in this case was just even on its own terms.  Sexually assaulting a child is a violent offense; this isn’t a drug possession case.   Even in the context of more humane justice system, it’s hard to imagine this offense not meriting some jail time.  It seems relevant to note here that this 5-year-old conviction came to light because Richards was accused in another lawsuit of sexually abusing his son. While American mass incarceration is a disaster, I would say that people convicted of sexually assaulting children should be very far down on the list of people for whom we should be considering not incarcerating for any time at all.
  • As a public defender concedes, whatever we would like the American criminal justice system to look like, it’s inconceivable that a defendant without Richards’s connections would have gotten off so lightly for a such a serious offense.  And this makes the outrage in fact fully justified.  Prison and sentencing reforms are very important goals, but to exempt the well-connected from the sentences and conditions an ordinary defendant would receive is not only grossly unfair in itself, it’s counterproductive to the larger cause.  One of the many problems with arbitrary exemptions from general laws granted to the well-off is that they make it even easier to sustain unjust prison conditions and sentencing regimes.

We need prison reform and sentencing reform.  But lenient treatment for the well-connected is the last place this should start.  The argument that Richards wouldn’t “fare well in prison” wasn’t exactly wrong, but in the context of the actually existing American criminal justice system it proves too much.

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