So, to not too many folks' surprise, Bernie Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years of prison time for his record-breaking Ponzi scheme. Is that sentence long enough? I realize that such a question can inevitably only appear to be either facetious or based on a retributive motive. However it is neither. Is is rather, an honest question having to do with what such a sentence actually means to whomever cares to analyze it.
Whenever such sentences are handed down, regardless of the crime, I find myself wondering what the message is that we're trying to send. Madoff's sentence is, of course, actually one of life in prison – so why don't we call it that? Does "150 years of jail time" deter more prospective fraudsters (or whateverers) than "life in prison"? Does a sentence of 150 years of jail time deter a third more criminals or prospective criminals than does 100 years? If the intended message is – as I presume it to be – that 'we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law', then what message do we send when only the most egregious of crimes really see prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, and frankly, rarely even then?
Sentencing, aside from punishment or rehabilitation, is intended to send a strong message to others who might tread on the same illegal paths as those receiving the sentencing. Fair enough. So then isn't it time we looked at what message we are really sending and then align our fines, jail time, and efforts at restorative justice with those intended messages? Many, of course, will say that we have done exactly that by developing systems of specific, enforced sentences for certain crimes. Others will say that we're simply doing the best that we can with a difficult system of justice which, nonetheless does its best to be both fair and equitable. However, sentences like those for Bernie Madoff seem to always lead me to question whether or not we have really gotten very close to figuring any of that out. No matter how you cut it, 150 years feels like an oddly arbitrary amount of time.
So, is Madoff's sentence too short? Too long? Only the partial appropriate response to his crimes? The wrong response to his crimes altogether?
I won't pretend to have the answer to these questions but I think that we are all remiss if we don't struggle a bit with answering them – both as individuals and as governments – as well as we may be able.
Interestingly, several hours after the above post was written, the transcript of the Madoff sentencing hearing was released. So, if you'd like to know the sentencing judge's answers to the questions I posed, they can be found right here – near the bottom – in the Madoff sentencing hearing transcript.