My girlfriend and I are avid fans of the TV show Ringer. Tragically, I’ve heard that it might be canceled again, which makes this post a little late but there was something I specifically wanted to discuss in terms of story that I found interesting in the show and which also pertains to criminal justice matters, namely the punishments associated with so-called “white collar crime.”
For those who haven’t seen the latest few episodes and are still thinking about it, this is where I give fair warning about “spoilers”.
For everyone else, a brief summation of the very convoluted plot goes like this:
There are two identical sisters, Siobhan and Bridget. Siobhan is rich and married to a hedge fund banker in New York while Bridget is a former drug addict, stripper, and material witness in a Federal murder case. Having gotten cold feet, Bridget flees to New York where Siobhan takes her out on a boat trip and subsequently disappears and is presumed drowned. Bridget, seeing an opportunity, adopts Siobhan’s identity and returns to New York where she spends the next dozen episodes almost being exposed and avoiding people who seem to want Siobhan dead. Siobhan, meanwhile, is in Paris wanting to take down her husband.
Like I said, it’s convoluted. But the twists and turns are fun. Believe me.
Anyway, at some point it’s learned that part of the reason for at least a handful of the deaths that occur are because of the husband’s business partner, as an attempt to cover up the ponzi scheme they hatched to keep the fund afloat. And this is where I find the story and it’s confluence with criminal law interesting.
With the Occupy Wall Street protests of last year, not to mention Enron and Bernie Madoff, there have been a lot of calls to strengthen the penalties associated with white collar crime to be not unlike those of the rest of criminal law. In short, the thinking goes, if you can be put in prison for the rest of your life for murdering someone, shouldn’t the same happen for losing all of someone’s money?
And I guess in this incarceration crazy country of ours, where we have more real people in prison than China (as opposed to per-capita where we just blow them out of the water), it might even be a legitimate one. That is, if you believe that every possible slight and crime committed against another person should be punished by a lengthy prison term. But I wish to offer this to the discussion:
If by stealing and being found out you stand to go to prison for the same length of time as a murderer, then wouldn’t a reasonable person commit murder to prevent that secret from getting out?
First, a caveat, which is that obviously stealing is wrong. Stealing from a lot of people doesn’t make it more wrong, right and wrong being a binary concept, but it is wrong on a larger scale. And I can also see people calling for long prison sentences as a way of discouraging people from stealing in the first place, not that that’s worked. But if you can get a sentence of one-hundred and fifty years for stealing (a life sentence for anyone unless smoking has seriously reduced my likely lifespan by more than I thought) then why not off a few people to prevent it from being discovered in the first place?
In fact, with such a long prison term not only being a possibility but a reality, doesn’t it actually encourage murder if that will stop a secret from coming out?
The entire plot point on Ringer, then, is made possible because of our draconian punishments. And how do such things make society better?
When someone is sentenced to a lengthy prison term, especially when they are as highly educated as the people who run these scams usually are, they’re being locked away actually becomes a net loss to the society they wronged in the first place. The people they harmed are now responsible for their room, board, clothing, and welfare for the rest of their lives. For someone truly dangerous, like a murderer say, I get it. It’s a cost I’m willing to absorb. But someone who fudged figures?
So let me offer an alternative: Civil penalties.
Sure, they’re not as “sexy” as seeing some Wall Street baron being hauled off in chains but they might actually be fairer to the society they harmed and their specific victims, not to mention the hypothetical people they didn’t kill to keep a secret hidden.
First of all, society doesn’t pay the cost of their just existing. Secondly, while they’ll probably never pay back what was owed, their working means they have wages that can be severely garnished and something might actually be returned. Third, while they might not be able to get a job above clerk ever again, at least their productivity isn’t lost to the world. And, fourth, because they usually are smart people, if they ever do start again and build something new, there’s a higher chance of repayment and a net plus to the economy because of the new jobs creating enterprise they’re now involved in.
Now, before someone accuses me of being “easy” on white collar criminals, consider this. You can only take pleasure in the conviction of a Madoff once. However, a Madoff ladling out soup in the deli under the office building from which he once ran his scam, making effectively three bucks an hour with the rest garnished to pay back what he stole, offers unlimited possibilities for schadenfreude. And you’re not on the hook for taking care of him for the rest of his life.
I ask you, is that not a better way? Or would you rather see blood in the streets from bankers trying to protect their secrets?
(See what I did there? Talk about rhetorical flourish. You’d have to be an asshole to take the second choice!)