Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.
As always, we are eager to reprint alternative or dissenting viewpoints. To submit a response or guest column, contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — I would hate being a county court judge.
It’s not that I don’t like working with people, or that I think the law is a boring matter of study, or that I wouldn’t enjoy wearing magisterial black robes.
But I wouldn’t like having to decide people’s fates: There’s simply no part of me that envies the awesome power judges have to mete out the state’s punishment and weigh it against a person’s freedom. To be candid, it seems like the source of ceaseless agonizing — and endless second-guessing.
I was reminded of my aversion to judicial office yesterday when publishing some Ithaca Voice stories and reflecting on recent court cases. I do not purport to be an expert in criminal justice — and I would never say that I could do better than the judges … but, well, how do you make sense of the following sentencing decisions?
1 — In August 2014, Angel Arce was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his second burglary conviction. He was arrested with stolen jewelery on Ithaca’s Pleasant Street, according to law enforcement.
2 — In February, Laureen Hamilton was sentenced to 60 days on grand larceny charges for stealing several thousand dollars from an Ithaca City School District union.
3 — Earlier this month, 20-year-old Justin M. Dickerson-Bozeman admitted to stealing two computers worth about $4,000 with another person. He was sentenced to 75 days in jail and five years of probation, according to the Ithaca Voice’s Jolene Almendarez.
4 — Also on Wednesday, Pamela Johnson, 55, was sentenced in court to 90 days in jail. She admitted to stealing $247,000 over several years from the TCAT bus company while in the throes of a gambling addiction. The thefts severely depleted the finances of TCAT, an essential service for hundreds of Tompkins and Ithaca residents.
It was the last case — with its apparently lenient sentence for Johnson, as noted by a flurry of Ithaca Voice readers — that really drew my attention.
Johnson stole close to a quarter-million from the public piggy bank over several years. But she received about the same amount of jail time as a kid who stole two computers worth $4,000.
Does that sound right?
Confused, I spoke Wednesday with a defense attorney in town whom I very much respect. He patiently explained to me that Dickerson-Bozeman had committed a burglary in stealing the computers, and that burglary is considered a violent felony. As a result, this lawyer said, it made sense that Johnson would face a much lighter sentence per dollar stolen than Dickerson-Bozeman.
My friend’s viewpoint made sense to me. I can understand why the law would want to distinguish between crime with the potential for physical injury and those with no real potential for physical injury. And it was probably true that Dickerson-Bozeman’s crime — which occurred at a Cornell residence hall — had a greater likelihood to lead to violence than Johnson’s.
But I still came away from the conversation thinking that something was amiss. It’s not that I think Johnson is a worse person than Dickerson-Bozeman, or that I feel a deep punitive desire to see Johnson suffer for her terrible mistakes (the public humiliation must already be unbearable), or that Dickerson-Bozeman deserves to be let off without any sort of repercussion.
I do think this, however: A 55-year-old white collar employee who knowingly steals hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of several years from a beloved public company probably deserves a significantly greater punishment than a 20-year-old who makes a couple bad split-second decisions.
Some critics on our Facebook page have already wondered if Johnson’s relative affluence or background — or, what would be more disturbing, her race (white) — had a conscious influence on the judges’ decisions. (Dickerson-Bozeman is black.) I think this probably goes too far: Tompkins’ judges are clearly careful and conscientious, and they’re forced to work within the restrictions of our state’s judicial code.
But something else must be recognized in this complicated and heated discussion: Yes, crime with the potential for violence should be met with a generally harsher punishment. But we must also recognize that these different sentencing guidelines also codify fundamental economic distinctions in our society that exist outside the judicial code.
To put it more simply: Poor people who steal do not have access to vast bank accounts they can quietly manipulate without risk of violence. The gainfully employed, by contrast, have the ability to embezzle for personal gain behind closed doors. The judges are not consciously thinking they should treat the middle/upper person better, but the result in some ways probably mirrors what would happen if they did. And that’s an outrage.
I don’t think I’d make a very good judge. But when the way the affluent steal and the way the poor steal are punished in fundamentally different ways, the scales of justice have been tipped out of balance.