Service of Justice

February 17th, 2011

Categories: Accommodation, Cheating, Deception, Justice



I don’t think being easy on ourselves, or on each another, is beneficial either to a soul or to society. I’ve written before about the Service of Excuses and have touched on many aspects of the topic frequently.

On a recent Sunday, New York Times columnist Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist,” gave his opinion to a surgeon who asked whether or not she should submit a plea to the court so a woman’s jail sentence might be delayed two weeks. This way, she could be with her child–the patient–through the recuperation period after an operation.

Cohen wrote:

crying-child“No matter what you do, the child will suffer from her mother’s absence for years, something the mother should have considered when committing these crimes: her victims were not just those she swindled but also the members of her own family. The rest of us should also contemplate this cruel side effect of our criminal-justice system: it punishes not only the prisoner herself but also her family and, indeed, all who love her. A system that racks up so much collateral damage is one we should re-examine.”

I put the copy in bold. While there may be a billion reasons that the justice system should be reexamined, I don’t think Cohen’s is one. I’d start with the bankruptcy laws. They allow people to abuse vendors time after time, wiping clean all debt while starting up a new venture and repeating the process. My change would be: Do this twice and you can’t start another business again for X years. I’d move on to reduce frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits and then address limits to outrageous legal fees.

ponzi21Back to Cohen’s case: This mother’s five year sentence was for “orchestrating a Ponzi scheme.” As Cohen pointed out, she should have thought of her daughter and loved ones before cheating others. I feel sympathy for her victims.

Taking Cohen’s suggestion a step farther: Should swindlers with a family be given lighter sentences than single people or those with no children? Are there aspects to the justice system you think should be reexamined? Do you see this as part of a trend to let criminals off easy?


7 Responses to “Service of Justice”

  1. David Reich Said:

    I don’t think people who break the law should get off easy. And jail time shouldn’t be a country club.

    But I do think compassion can play a part in sentencing. It depends on the circumstances.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    A person should blame themselves if they are sucked in by a too-good-to-be-true Ponzi scheme.

    I stand by my view that in a case such as this it’s up to the schemer to consider his/her dependants and loved ones before taking action and not up to the justice system to be compassionate.

    I concede that there may be instances where compassion has a place but feel that Randy Cohen didn’t select the appropriate example to make this point.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    The US, supposedly a “free” country, has proportionately more people in jail than most, if not all other nations, including dictatorships. There is something wrong here, and one of the things is that jail is seen as the answer to just about all crimes, many of which are not true crimes, but legalities invented by a Victorian society. It might be better for all if non violent crimes were punished by forcing the culprit to pay back as much as possible. Sticking the culprit in jail only costs the taxpayer, and does nothing to help the victim(s). Family, regardless of the situation, should not be a factor in 99% of the cases, but decisions should be made in the name of justice, not tear jerking situations.

    There should be no sympathy spent on swindlers, but rather creativity as to the punishment. Jail solves no problems. It might be much better for all if such persons were forced to give back what was stolen, even if it means denuding all assets. Sorry the person has children. Seeing what happens to mama, and facing possible starvation as a result of her actions, might be a strong lesson in how not to behave in the future.

  4. HG Said:

    The Ethicist used to be a good column–we hate it now— he thinks he is SO SMART and clever and—he is NOT!

    A better advice column appears in the Sunday STYLES section dealing with everyday matters!!

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree it seems unfair for the public to pay to house and feed people who have broken the law. Yet the idea of allowing people whose crimes don’t involve physical violence to carry on in freedom doesn’t sit right with me. And while they may not have bashed in someone’s head or caused other physical harm, stealing hurts their victims nonetheless.

    So I think that they should be isolated as well as forced to return the stolen goods or money—with interest.

    I have no proof but bet that plenty of scammers have pots of money offshore. When they have fulfilled their few years in jail, they return to their money while many of their victims never recover.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I love advice columns—always have—and I enjoy the one in the Sunday Styles section, too.

    It’s fun to disagree with the advice-givers or to learn from them. What a great job that would be!

    I wonder if The Ethicist writes nutty things to generate conversation, which now seems to be a requirement for staying on top of your job in the media.

  7. Horace Peabody Said:

    You’ve picked an interesting, complex topic.

    The poet said, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” He didn’t say, “Let the punishment fit the criminal’s circumstances.” Nor did he say, “Let him off lightly because he’s got a family.”, or, for that matter, anything about rehabilitation, or about a crime which may be one in New York, but not one in New Jersey, and so forth.

    Because Bernie Madoff got beaten up in prison, he now has the special privilege of being segregated from the general prison population. Is that right? Or should he have thought of what prison might be like when he was Ponziing?

    My inclination would be to ensure consistency in punishment and make sure that wrong doers know what will happen to them if they get caught. But that won’t happen. It would put too many lawyers and judges out of work.

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