Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison today for perpetrating an elaborate Ponzi scheme that swindled untold numbers of people out of a reputed tens of billions of dollars over a period of over twenty years.
I feel ambivalent about his sentence. On the one hand, Madoff ruined the lives of so many people that I believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. Indeed, if we're going to have a death penalty, and the death penalty is reserved for those who commit the most destructive crimes, I believe that Madoff should receive the death penalty, even if that might be less punitive than enduring years if not decades in prison with no hope of getting out.
On the other hand, I'm a psychological determinist. That is, I believe that everything we do is the inevitable result of psychological causes that we did not cause. I don't know what caused Madoff to do what he did, but I believe that, given the interplay of his genetics, his brain structure and functioning, his environment, his life experience, and who knows what else, Bernie Madoff had to do what he did.
Yet, if that's true, how fair or just is it to punish Madoff with a life sentence for doing what he couldn't help but do? I wrestle with this question not only with respect to Bernie Madoff but also with respect to everyone convicted of any crime. I haven't arrived at any clear answers. But so far as Madoff is concerned, I believe that had he known before he began defrauding people that he could receive a life sentence for it, he might well never have done it, and others will almost certainly be deterred by his sentence from doing something similar. I also believe that "we the people" have a sense that justice has been served in the Madoff case and that this is better for our country than if we had the sense that guys like Madoff always get off relatively easy while the rest of us would have the proverbial book thrown at us for far less impactful crimes.
As I read what I've just written, I guess I'm making a utilitarian argument for Madoff's sentence. I'm arguing that its effects on potential white collar criminals and society as a whole is likely to be more good than bad. But still, to a psychological determinist like me, it hardly seems fair or just.
What's more, it would be interesting to ponder what I would think of Madoff's sentence if I could somehow know that it was unlikely to deter others from committing similar crimes or was unlikely to have a net positive effect on society. I suppose the vengeful part of me would still rejoice in Madoff's sentence. But another and presumably wiser part of me would probably feel profound misgivings.
But what I would like to see now is an effective investigation into just how Madoff was able to perpetrate fraud on such an incredible scale for such an amazingly long time despite ample cause for suspicion and even credible warnings that he was up to no good. Who wasn't on the ball, or worse, and what should our justice system do with THEM?
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