Saturday, September 23, 2006

People We're Mad At

Until a few months back, I worked on the same floor with this woman. Now she's been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after having been found guilty of using her position to divert a contract to a company that had not won in the bidding process. It was pretty clear to us at the time that, had this been the military, it would have been a case of the lieutenant taking the fall for everyone else up the chain. There were those in the building, though, who refused to believe that anything untoward had actually happened at all, even after the verdict, primarily because she was such a reticent but friendly woman. When she was convicted, the morale in the place dropped low enough to refreeze those melting ice sheets at the poles.

I look at this sentence and, I'm sorry to all you "do the crime, do the time" folks, I can't help but feel this is a classic case of the now-cliche "locking up the people we're mad at" rather than "the people we're afraid of." I didn't know her except to say hello in the hall, but frankly it makes me mad that my tax dollars will be going to pay for her incarceration for the next 18 months. This woman should be doing serious community restitution, visible, where everyone knows what she's there for, but contributing her skills and experience to rebuilding what she's taken apart, with a job as well to pay her own punishment. She doesn't need to be draining away my money.

We have to be tough on her or people will lose faith in the system? That's what the judge said. I'd like to think there's always a correlation between wisdom and what judges say, just like I'd like to think Salma Hayek has built a shrine to me. Everybody and his grandfather there knows that this woman's just a fall guy, gal, girl, woman, whatever, and that higher ups skated. WI isn't just going through the corrections and sentencing psychosis I've described here. The state is in the first broad loops of a spiral narrowing downward that its "leaders" determinedly refuse to address, which does far more to make residents lose faith in the system than hanging a little scrawny mid-level bureaucrat out to dry. And those other bureaucrats who needed deterring? Believe me, seeing one of their own lose her job, her house, her reputation, her future gets the job done. You don't need to add federal prison to the list.

What sentencing goals are being achieved with this? Specific deterrence? Well, how many more contracts do you think she was ever going to be put near anyway? General deterrence? See "lost job, house, reputation, future" above. Rehab? I would bet every dollar I ever earn the rest of my life that this woman will even come to complete stops at stop signs, much less ever doing anything else wrong again--and that was before she got the pen. Incapacitation? Like she was going to be out diverting more contracts if we hadn't locked her up? No, this is purely punitive. We're mad and we're going to show her.

Okay, fine. I've been mad at people I've wished I could have locked in maximum. (It was probably good I didn't control an electric chair.) And I don't accept the idea that we should ignore the symbolic value of punishment and reaffirmation of community values, like it might sound like I'm doing. But I know this woman. She poses no threat to anyone or anything anymore. In a sound sentencing system, her skills and training would have been put to use in productive ways that did not take dollars out of my billfold, would have actually kept some of the (few) others I have in their place. But now she's going to behind bars, doing nothing, contributing nothing, in the name of a value that her incarceration, while superiors walk, actually spoofs. And people with claims to functioning brains think this is a good idea.

Forget the "California Challenge." We're the challenge.

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