ALBANY,NY and WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — January 19, 2020 — If you listen carefully, we are in the midst of a profound debate about crime and punishment. Baseball’s cheating scandal; Rep. Chris Collins’ guilty plea; President Donald Trump’s impeachment; Harvey Weinstein’s trial; cash bail reform. In all these we sense that something wrong has happened. We can’t seem to agree on what to do about it.
There are ancient and unanswerable questions in play. What’s the purpose of punishment such as imprisonment? Deterrence? Revenge? Isolation? Are we convicting and punishing innocent people? Are punishments too severe or too lenient? Why does America imprison so many people?
There is no end to such debate, nor should there be. In the midst of such uncertainty we do have to make a few hard decisions. It’s helpful to set out basic guidelines that may make it easier to resolve them.
First, whatever we decide should apply equally, to friend and foe alike. There’s been a tendency to explain away bad behavior when we know, like or sympathize with the perpetrator. And to demand extreme penalties for our enemies or adversaries. If leniency makes sense when punishing street criminals, it makes sense for Collins.
Second, leniency must be available but it must be earned. Remorse matters. To be forgiven, one has to ask for forgiveness and the sincerity of the request needs to be examined. Weinstein’s defense tactics, however legally sound, do not seem to be founded in contrition.
Third, our current systems of punishment are defective. Wealth and race in particular distort outcomes. It’s a hard problem to solve. System reform does not always yield good results in specific cases, for the perpetrator or the public. It isn’t enough to point only to broad injustice in the bail system, or only to particular bad actors who may gain advantage from reform. In the end we need to improve both outcomes.
Fourth, public safety and social justice can coexist. Cash bail reform addressed longstanding unfairnesses in a basic system. It is unacceptable to use supposed flaws in the recent reforms to undo them. It is appropriate to ask if changes could improve public safety in individual cases.
There are certainly other expressions of basic values. What’s important is for each of us to declare them and then turn to specifics.
With that in mind, here are one observer’s conclusions.
Baseball cheating: Baseball should come down hard on those who participated in the sign-stealing efforts. Additional suspensions are appropriate. A re-entry path should be part of the discipline.
Collins: A jail sentence of weeks or months, not years, should be imposed as necessary deterrence, if the judge finds he is remorseful.
Trump: If evidence continues to emerge of illegal withholding of military aid, he should be convicted.
Weinstein: Wait for the verdict and his response if convicted.
Cash bail reform: Have an open conversation about public safety concerns, but not about repeal.
We have an elaborate system of political democracy intended to handle these issues. The successful politician is one who addresses questions of values and policy in ways that are understandable to the people who selected him or her. Voters expect disagreement. They also expect clarity and candor. We need all this as crime and punishment take center stage.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on January 19, 2020.