Sympathy for Bob McDonnell, Not Ruth Marcus

Ruth MarcusIt might surprise you to know that I have great sympathy for Bob McDonnell who was just sentenced to two years in prison. Some people are scoffing at the sentence, but I’d like to see them do two years in federal prison. But more than that, I’ve always seen his crime as indicative of our broken political system. Generally, only rich people become governors of large states. So McDonnell and his wife found themselves in this sea of rich people and they felt like they were out of their depth. Bob McDonnell was governor, after all. And I’m sympathetic to that. What he did was wrong and he shouldn’t have done it. But I’m far more concerned about the fact everyone swimming around our governors are rich. That is the problem we should all be concerned about.

Barring people like the gunmen who murdered the people at Charlie Hebdo, I generally feel sorry for people who go away to prison. People who think of it as “easy” or a “vacation” are completely ignorant of the situation. But that doesn’t mean that I will brook the kind of nonsense that Ruth Marcus dished out last night, For Bob McDonnell, Justice Was Served. It’s not that I necessarily agree or disagree with her conclusion. The problem is her logic.

She noted that Bob McDonnell’s “promising career” is now over. Is that not enough of a punishment?! She went back on this later, claiming that, well, if you follow this logic to its natural conclusion that “prison is never justified in cases of public corruption.” And that can’t be the case. But the truth is that McDonnell’s promising career is not over. He may yet have a career in politics. If not, I’m sure he has enough connections to get a good lobbying job. And at the absolute worst, someone will get him a job in upper management at some corporation. He’ll be fine.

What most definitely will not happen to McDonnell is that he will be working as a busboy at Denny’s or forced into a life of crime because no one will hire him. This, of course, is the fate of most people who do two years in federal prison. In fact, this is what happens to most people who get convicted of felonies and don’t have to serve any time at all. The prison time is, in the long-term, the least of the punishment meted out to convicted felons. Bob McDonnell is far luckier than the Ruth Marcuses of the world could ever know.

Marcus wrote something else that almost gave me a stroke:

Sentencing in white-collar and public-corruption cases presents a puzzle. One chief rationale for incarceration — incapacitating the dangerous offender to protect society — does not apply. White-collar defendants tend to be pillars of the community, not violent criminals who need to be locked away.

Let’s leave aside the preposterous idea that “pillars of the community” cannot also be violent criminals. Apparently, she’s never heard of John Wayne Gacy. And let’s leave aside the implicit plea for leniency for the “right kind of people.” What does Ruth Marcus think are the crimes of people in federal prison? As of 29 November 2014, almost 75% of the people in federal prison were there for clearly non-violent crimes. Almost half (48.7%) where there for drug offenses.

But it all goes together. The people in jail for drug crimes are primarily poor. They are by definition not the “right kind of people.” So it doesn’t matter that they are going to be sentenced to at least three years and often far longer. On the state level, it can be much worse. In Kentucky, “For simple possession, first offenders in Kentucky get two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.”

I’m allowed to say, “For Bob McDonnell, justice was served.” But Ruth Marcus is not. I’ve spent the last two decades of my life pushing for an end to drug criminalization. Ruth Marcus occasionally mentions that mandatory minimum sentences are a bad thing — when it occurs to her. But I can’t find her arguing that the “chief rationale for incarceration — incapacitating the dangerous offender to protect society — does not apply” when it comes to drug “criminals.” Because I’m sure she doesn’t believe that. Growing up in the upper class and studying at Yale didn’t exactly prepare her to empathize with “those kind of people.” She shows a little pity occasionally, but never empathy.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

1 thought on “Sympathy for Bob McDonnell, Not Ruth Marcus

  1. At least in the article she does mention deterrence, which is vastly the most important reason for white-collar jail time. (As everyone sane knows, deterrence has no effect on crimes caused by poverty/mental illness.)

    That whole “pillar of the community” line cracks me up. One; stupid metaphor. (If a person goes to jail and the community does not collapse, that person is not a pillar! “Upstanding member” is just as tired but not as stupid.) Two, what standard is she applying? They’re successful? Not all success is good for the community, even she should know that.

    My brother’s wife’s dad, a rich business owner, spent a year in jail for gross environmental violations, and everyone in my family thinks he was unfairly treated. C’mon! You don’t go to jail for environmental violations unless you really, REALLY flagrantly spat in the face of the law. I don’t belabor the issue with them (what would be the point?) but I’m sure he got off quite easily for being a “pillar of the community” with no prior record.

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