Archive for July, 2009

Bernie Madoff has been sentenced. 150 years.

I confess I haven’t been following the case all that closely. There are several reasons for my disinterest. First, it’s hard for me to relate to people who have lost millions of dollars. I know not all of Madoff’s clients were millionaires, but still, to be on the inside of the lucrative investing world is such a foreign idea to me it’s hard to relate. Second, I confess there is a small part of me that feels like people who knew their return on investments were too good to be true, but didn’t ask questions are as guilty of greed as Madoff was himself. But, even as I write that, I think it is perhaps not fair. Maybe when faced with something too good to be true we all are more inclined to ride out the good until we are forced to face the truth. Third, I don’t understand the language of the situation so it’s hard for me to talk participate in any meaningful conversations about it.

Still, as I listened to the reports of Madoff’s sentencing, I started to feel as if I must have some sort of opinion. At least about the sentencing. 150 years? That’s a hell of a long time, particularly given that it’s all for show. Madoff won’t likely live another 20 years. So, really, the 150 years is about “sending a message” to…who, exactly? The other half-dozen men out there who might be capable of pulling of a similar scheme? Is that supposed to make me feel better? Safer? And safer from what exactly? When your power—whether real or imagined—becomes as big as Madoff’s was you stop thinking about whether you will get caught or not because you believe you won’t. Think of all the politicians who think there’s no way they will get caught having their various affairs or eclectic deviant activities. Absolute power corrupts—even if the absolute power is ultimately imagined. So, I don’t know that I believe future Ponzi-schemers will be deterred. They’ll simply come to believe they are smarter than Madoff—that they won’t get caught. Until they are and we repeat the whole show all over again.

What then is the real purpose of the 150 years? To prove that the court takes stealing from the rich seriously? You could murder someone and not get that long of a sentence. What does that say about our society? Not that I’m advocating more sentences of such excessiveness, but it does make you wonder doesn’t it?

That’s the thing about this sentence—it’s got me asking questions. Once again forcing me to look at my beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil. Who deserves to be punished, why and for how long? Before my work at the prison I would have been more inclined to say good riddance to Bernie Madoff. Let the rich man be punished. It doesn’t happen often enough. Take him down. There is after all, a certain sick satisfaction in seeing the powerful fall, in having them be reminded they are just as fallible as the rest of us. But now?

Now I wonder there’s got to be a better punishment for Madoff than rotting away in prison. What does it really accomplish to send a seventy-year old man to prison? What if instead he were sentenced to pay his retribution by working with low-income communities, teaching them about financial management, investing on a budget, etc? He a crook, sure, but he’s clearly not stupid. Let him use his evil for good, so to speak. What if he were to have to help a church or a women’s shelter to raise capital funds for a new building? What if he had to help those he stole from recover their losses? Imagine Madoff spending his last years giving back to society instead of continuing to take from it, which is exactly what he will be doing in prison as our tax dollars pay to wait for an elderly man to do what elderly men do naturally—die. Imagine the lessons he might learn as a contributing, instead of thieving, member of his society. Imagine what a working mother could teach him about life and living, money and saving. With any luck, before he dies, Madoff would change for the better. Rehabilitation, right? Isn’t that what say we want?

150 years feels like bloodlust to me. It’s not about punishing Bernie Madoff, it’s about appeasing the masses. It’s about reminding us all that money is power and you better not dare mess with either. And that’s no way to run a judicial system in my opinion. Madoff should have to work to repent for his crimes. That would be justice.