A couple of days ago, I opined that to have Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling die in prison represented excessive harshness: not, admittedly, by comparison with the rest of the insane Federal sentencing system, but by any absolute standard. (If my commenters are a representative sample of my readers, I didn’t much convince anyone.)
My friend Lowry Heussler offers a comment:
Well, they’re going to be sentenced to prison. So would it be so wrong to offer them a choice?
I would like to see them placed on something similar to the day reporting system in Massachusetts. They would be told where to live (the cheapest apartment in Houston, perhaps) and required to work at a menial job every day. Public transportation. All sums earned go straight to the probation department, which then allows rent to be paid and minimal expenses allowed. No TV. If they want to read, they can take the bus to the library. Any gift is immediately forfeited. Poor work evaluations or other anti-social behavior are grounds for revoking day-reporting status, and off they go to the big house.
I just think the punishment should fit the crime. Lay and Skilling should learn what life is like for the people whose pension funds they emptied. It’s not fun to know that if you get fired you can’t eat. To see half your paycheck go for health insurance and taxes. To be really concerned about the price of toilet paper. They can lie around and feel sorry for themselves in prison, but I don’t think that really does it. There is an irony– adherence to this plan could provide true freedom if they adopted the Stoic way of thinking.
I doubt this is practicable, even if the legal mechanism existed to carry it out. I’m not sure about Skilling, but Lay is married. Would his wife be forbidden to live with him? If not, what’s to prevent her spending her own money (or money donated by some of the people Lay enriched) on comforts for him?
Still, as a thought-experiment it seems to me quite fertile. I find it hard to deny that the sentence Lowry proposes would be just, although I can’t quite make out whether the existence such a sentence would impose would be more or less harsh than incarceration. (Perhaps it would be less harsh than a “Level 4” United States Prison such as Atlanta or Leavenworth, where inmate-on-inmate violence is a frequent occurrence, but less harsh than a “Level 1” camp, also known as “Club Fed.” Perversely, the longer the sentence, the harsher the conditions of incarceration; Lay and Skilling will be at minimum in a “Level II” Federal Correctional Institution, which doesn’t mean comfort but does mean a reasonable degree of personal security.)
And that, of course, is the truly scary thought. Our social and economic stratification is now so extreme that, to someone used to affluence, a sentence to poverty, especially to poverty in old age, is comparable in harshness to a sentence to prison.
Footnote That seems to me a very strong argument against the current trend toward making people’s retirement comfort dependent entirely on their luck and skill as investors, and in general against continuing to make economic life riskier and riskier for the non-wealthy. But that’s a story for another day.