Monday, June 07, 2004

Yesterday's corporate-crime issue of The New York Times Magazine contained not one but two articles intended to make us feel sorry for white-collar criminals who actually -- horrors! -- face jail time. There's your liberal media.

Bruce Porter's long article is clearly intended to jerk tears, as he describes at length the rags-to-riches story of Jay Jones, his fondness for playing '50s country music on his guitar, his solid marriage and family life; oh, by the way, Jones was found guilty of "what amounted to corporate fraud" (How "what amounted to corporate fraud" differs from "corporate fraud" is never made clear.)

The emotional climax of Mark Costello's "Throwing Away the Key" is the story of a man who was convicted of securities fraud when Costello was working as a prosecutor. The man's lawyer tells a story of his devotion to a son who requires daily stool testing for "a gruesome disease"; the judge sentences the man to less than the recommended three years. Costello has mixed feelings about all this, but he makes clear that he and his fellow prosecutors preferred this kinder, gentler judge to another judge who actually doled out significant punishment to the criminals the prosecutors were trying to convict.

I know I sound stony-hearted, but if jail is the worst thing that could possibly happen to these men, weren't they responsible for keeping themselves on the straight and narrow? The man with the sick son in particular -- if it was so important for him to be there to do the son's medical tests, didn't he have a moral obligation to the boy to keep his nose clean?

These weren't desperate men who would have gone hungry if they hadn't cut corners. (Yes, Jay Jones's business was in trouble, but Porter tells us that "on paper his net worth added up to between $500 million and $1 billion" -- I'm sure that even in the wake of a downgrade of his company's bonds, the guy still would have had a couple of nickels to rub together.)

I don't know what happened to the other man, but Jay Jones went to prison and he's ... bored. No, not brutalized. Sometimes he can't get hold of a guitar. It sucks, I guess, but it sounds as if it's no Abu Ghraib. And he'll be out by 2007 -- unlike, say, the catcher on Darryl Strawberry's high school baseball team, who, we learn over in the Book Review, "thanks to California's three-strike law ... pulled a sentence of 25 years to life for breaking into Crenshaw High and ripping an eraser tray off a blackboard."

(Oh, and here's an odd detail about Jones -- throughout the article we read of the devotion of his wife, Jennifer, yet at one point we're told that "he [made] Jennifer go through a divorce of convenience" in order to protect some of their assets. This is never mentioned again, and throughout the article Jennifer is referred to as Jones's "wife." Isn't this more fraud?)

A lot of petty hoodlums want to get out of jail and make music. And I imagine a number of incarcerated drug mules have children with gruesome diseases. When we routinely treat these as extenuating circumstances in the sentencing of people who aren't of the better classes, then I'll say we should do the same for white-collar criminals.

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