This image was being passed around on Twitter a little while back, and it helps to demonstrate several things that are wrong with our modern idea of “criminal justice”. And not just the obvious ones.
If you’re like me, your initial reaction will be one of involuntary outrage and injustice, followed by a more measured skepticism about the authenticity of the reporting.
So, back to the outrage.
In the case of both of the above convicted criminals, there are reasons why we might want to punish or censure their behaviour, and there are factors that might prompt us to be more understanding. And in both their cases, I’m compelled to focus on how the compassionate option is overlooked.
The reason I checked Snopes about this in the first place is that Roy Brown’s story could hardly be written to tug harder on your heart-strings. He was homeless, he needed to pay for something to eat and somewhere to stay, he took only a single bill when offered several stacks of money, and he turned himself in the next day because the moral code his mother had instilled in him led him to feel bad. I mean, come on.
His past criminal record isn’t described in the screenshot of the article, and it’s not exactly spotless. But responding to his situation by deciding to incarcerate him for the next decade and beyond is irredeemably fucked.
Paul Allen, on the other hand, seems to have got off lightly. He was sentenced to a little over three years, mitigated in part because the $3,000,000,000 fraud he was involved in was “non-violent”. Apparently the fact that he didn’t punch anyone in the face to illegally acquire all that money means he didn’t harm anyone in doing it? And it’s not as if Roy Brown’s crime involved violence, or threats of violence, or would even have necessarily become violent if he had met with any resistance. So that seems like a pretty crappy reason to only go easy on the rich guy.
But his story is juxtaposed with Roy Brown’s, I suspect, to do more than just highlight the extremely harsh nature of the latter’s sentence.
It’s not enough that we feel sympathy for the homeless guy who made a mistake and felt bad; we’re also meant to loathe the arrogant fat-cat who didn’t get nearly the thrashing he deserved. And, despite my anger at the situation, I just don’t.
For one thing, NPR’s excellent Planet Money podcast featured a fascinating piece recently about Toby Groves, a guy who became involved in some major fraud despite everything about his track record indicating that he was less likely than most to act so dishonestly. They talk about the psychology behind these kinds of crimes, and how Toby Groves’s case is indicative of a fact insufficiently widely understood about human behaviour: it’s not just intrinsically terribly bad people who are capable of doing terribly bad things. The situations people find themselves in are hugely influential on their capacity to act immorally.
And holy crap is the financial system good at putting people in situations where doing terrible things seems like the sensible option and is very easily self-justified.
Paul Allen was sentenced in 2011. The criminal investigation into the company of which he was CEO became public in 2009. The fraud that was being investigated was already going on since before Allen took the CEO job, in 2003. So there were multiple prominent and powerful members of this huge national corporation, who spent years defrauding taxpayers out of billions of dollars without anything being done about it, in ways which suggest that these practices were endemic to the sector as a whole.
It’s palpable nonsense to suggest that these businesses will be fine once we get rid of the particular individuals who were in charge, and who just happened to be evil this one time. It doesn’t take a malevolent outlier to monumentally screw things up. I wouldn’t trust anyone with that level of responsibility, and that much potential for wrong-doing.
Roy Brown and Paul Allen can both be sentenced to jail. But we can’t imprison the social problems, drug culture, and other factors that cause decent people to be homeless and desperate. We can’t use threats to keep control over the business culture, the laws, the loopholes, and the complacency within the financial industry which contribute to billion-dollar fraud. The psychology of deterrence doesn’t work on institutional relationships and abstract concepts. (It doesn’t work all that reliably on actual humans.) We need to find some other way to address these things.
Compassion for people suffering from hard times and driven to commit criminal acts is part of the answer. Dredging up hatred for certain individuals, who get swept up in a sea of self-reinforcing greed in a system that makes it so easy for them, doesn’t seem like such a helpful part of the puzzle.