Saturday, January 21, 2012

Keep your hands off the meat

Choice Meat
Criminal defendants are often shocked when they wind up in jail or even prison for minor transgressions.  In such cases, their crimes run the gamut from negligent and strict liability crimes (where there is no criminal intent and often no direct or indirect harm to anyone) to small-time property offenses (where the financial harm is very minimal).  The best example of harsh punishment for property crimes can be found in California, where the Golden State’s infamous three-strikes-and-you’re-in program often puts petty shoplifters behind bars for decades or even for life.  But Wisconsin is no slouch either, as one criminal defendant recently found out the hard way.

In State v. Scheuers, the defendant pled to criminal damage to property for poking his finger through the plastic packaging of some meat in a supermarket.  The defendant paid restitution for the damaged meat before sentencing, and the prosecutor asked for ten days in jail.  The judge, however, ignored the government's recommendation because he believed the defendant’s crime “was mean and vicious”; he sentenced the defendant to seven months in jail—about twenty-one times longer than what the prosecutor wanted.  (The judge seemed to hang is hat on the possibility that a customer could have wound up cooking and eating the touched meat; but what customer would ever buy meat in broken packaging?)  With judges like this, it’s no wonder Wisconsin’s incarceration rate dwarfs that of our neighboring states.  

This meat-poking case got me thinking: property crimes seem to be disproportionately punished on the low-end of the scale.  By way of comparison, consider the senior partner in a big Midwest law firm who was recently sentenced for under-reporting his income to the tune of $250,000 over four years.  This equated to a theft $75,000 in tax revenue—a lofty sum compared to the value of the damaged meat—yet the lawyer only received a one year sentence, which is a mere five months longer than the meat-poker’s seven month sentence.  The math just doesn’t seem to make sense.    

And if you think that lawyer got off relatively easy for his theft, consider the Wall Street lawyer who was recently sentenced for hiding $10 million in income, which equated to a multi-million dollar theft of tax revenue from our under-funded (and over-spending) government.  This lawyer, however, had an excuse: he suffered from depression and was in a “dysfunctional relationship,” so he “put off the required filings, hoping to handle them in one felled swoop.”  (This doesn’t seem likely, given that the underreporting occurred over an eight year period and the money was diverted to renovations on his “weekend home.”)  His sentence: A mere two years.  Now the math is really getting whacky. 

Obviously, this is only an anecdotal survey, and these cases occurred in different jurisdictions and had different victims.  (Who knew, though, that grocers would have nearly as much clout with the courts as the IRS?)  But the message here is twofold: first, low-end crime just isn’t worth the time; and second, keep your hands off the meat.

1 comment: