Do crime, do time
As Martha Steward and Kenneth Lay are led off to jail, the lesson is this: No matter how wealthy you are, lying under oath (in the case of Martha Stewart) or artificially inflating the value of your company stock (in the case of Kenneth Lay) can land you behind bars.
Another lesson is that high political connections don’t help. Martha Steward was a big political contributor to and pal of Hillary and Bill Clinton. Kenneth Lay was a member of Houston’s oil and gas glitterati and, as such, had social contacts with the Bush family.
Both Stewart and Lay fell prey to one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed. Martha tried to protect the value of her stock portfolio by acting on inside information. That, by itself, would probably have just gotten her a whopping fine and no jail time. But she lied under oath to investigators. And, for that, the federal sentencing guidelines will dictate a year to 16 months in Club Fed. Lay, either by acts of commission or omission, pulled the retirement funding rug out from under hundreds of his employees. Given his advanced age, Lay may well go from Club Fed to wherever such folks spend Eternity.
This observer is somewhat conflicted about Martha’s jail time. She is, by nature, a teacher of all things having to do with living the beautiful life. No doubt her fellow inmates will benefit from her presence at Club Fed. But a larger audience could be served if she were sentenced to a zillion hours of community service teaching hotel and motel housekeeping staff how to do their jobs better and take that next step up the ladder toward better paying jobs.
But that’s not going to happen. And, in addition making an example out of Martha, there are good reasons behind the mandatory sentencing guidelines. Beginning with the social upheaval of the 1960s, crime became America’s growth industry. Between 1960 and 1980 the violent crime rate rose by over 190 percent.
Finally, taxpayers rebelled by insisting on stricter law enforcement, on stricter laws with regard to the root causes of violent crime – such as substance abuse. The public demanded post-conviction sentencing guidelines designed to make the punishments fit the crimes. But the public also wanted fairness and equity with regard to sentencing so that a liberal judge could no longer administer a slap on the wrist while a conservative judge punished by throwing away the keys.
By 1990, with more stringent measures in place, the violent crime rate began to fall. By 1995, crime was down by 6.4 percent. Yet, even with stronger sentencing guidelines, 95 percent of those incarcerated are being released back into society. That despite a Department of Justice study revealing that 68 percent of released criminals will be rearrested for the commission of a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of being released. Of that 68 percent, almost 50 percent will be convicted of a new crime.
This suggests that sentencing guidelines aren’t too harsh. They are too lenient. We routinely see reports of released criminals who kill again, who rape again; who abduct a child again because some judge imposed an initial light sentence or some parole board let them out early.
Clearly, the current system needs sharper focus. The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by a small coterie of habitual criminals -- somewhere between ten and 15 percent. They also have the highest rates of recidivism. Common sense suggests these criminals are not going to be rehabilitated and should be locked away for good.
Moreover, minorities are twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes as whites and are three times more likely to be robbed. Thus, troubled minority communities benefit the most from getting violent criminals off their streets, and keeping them off.
Neither Stewart nor Lay are violent. But jailing them protects the integrity of the system.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States –