And Justice For All?
June 25, 2011 11:20 AM   Subscribe

An image showing disparity in sentencing appears in a tweet by Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow and raises questions of its validity. Paul R. Allen is clearly a real case and Roy Brown an actual criminal but what do the differences in their sentencing say about the state of justice in America?

How do two men, both convicted of federal crimes get such vastly different sentences?
posted by geekyguy (26 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
One is white and rich. Case closed.
posted by dirtylittlecity at 11:23 AM on June 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

Urge to kill . . . rising.
posted by ianhattwick at 11:35 AM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

-- 17th century protest against English enclosure
posted by titus-g at 11:41 AM on June 25, 2011 [65 favorites]

"The 40-month sentence for Paul R Allen, 55, of Oakton, VA., is slightly less than the six-year term sought by federal prosecutors."

Slightly less? It's less than 2/3 of the 6-year term. It's nearly only half of the sentence.

Compared to a 15 year term it's not much at all, but it's a long way from "slightly less" than 6 years.
posted by hippybear at 11:48 AM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

> Allen was chief executive at Ocala, Fla.-based Taylor Bean & Whitaker, which collapsed in 2009 after the criminal investigation became public, resulting in its 2,000 employees losing their jobs.

How many people lost their jobs because of Roy Brown? Which crime had a more detrimental impact upon society? Who turned himself in and expressed remorse and who had to be tracked down by the feds and only expressed remorse at his sentencing?
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind
The other is driven around to his club
Is feted, wined and dined.
And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile,
And extend the hand so glad.

The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite,
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
blood sucking day and night.
The bum on the rod is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozen of men
To furnish the other a meal.

As long as you sanction the bum on the plush
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.
Then make an intelligent, organized kick
Get rid of the weights that crush.
Don't worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush.

-Fry Pan Jack / Utah Phillips
posted by entropone at 11:56 AM on June 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

One can afford a room-full of highly-trained lawyers to negotiate minutia and details in order to wring the smallest possible punishment out of the proceedings, over the course of several months.

The other didn't. And was black. And homeless.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:58 AM on June 25, 2011

These are valid points, but that Negro who turned himself in looks black and scary. Well, not that scary, but definitely black. Might as well get him off the streets.

While the other guy is a respectable citizen like you and me, who cut a few corners. But his heart was in the right place, because he wanted to makes lots of money.
posted by orthogonality at 12:02 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

The problem is that the poor have less access to skilled counsel, plain and simple.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:11 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

FYI, KTBS appears to be the original source of the Roy Brown article.
posted by lantius at 12:13 PM on June 25, 2011

The other problem is that large financial frauds are not punished enough when it comes to the sentencing guidelines.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:14 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I haven't lived in Shreveport for a decade, but remember white racism being well maintained.

Curious: what's the heaviest sentence a bankster has received of late?
posted by doctornemo at 12:25 PM on June 25, 2011

Roy Brown pretended he had a gun, which is equivalent to armed robbery in the eyes of the law.

Paul Allen received a reduced sentence because he cooperated with the government in building a case against the mastermind of the plot, Lee B. Farkas.

That's why.
posted by WhitenoisE at 12:26 PM on June 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

The criminal justice system in the U.S. is a mess. Judicial discretion; prosecutorial discretion; bias and prejudice amongst judges, attorneys, juries, and police; incompetence of judges, attorneys, juries, and police; lack of resources; unequal resources; misplaced legislative priorites. . . . you can't even begin to list all the things wrong with how justice is meted out in U.S. courts.

What Thorzdad said about affording a room of highly trained lawyers is something I've been thinking about lot in conjunction with a project at work. It's a very dense problem. You simply cannot navigate being charged with a criminal offense without an attorney and you should want to. Like having a serious illness, or a major structural problem with your houses roof, being charged with a crime is a time when you need a highly competent professional working in your best interest. This is why we have public defenders.

But I've been one of them; I still have lots of friends who are them. A lot of them are good at their jobs, but even that isn't enough. Public defense is only marginally better than no defense at all--in many cases it's only marginally worse than private defense. Police provide one set of reports to the prosecutor, who turns over a different set to the defense. Yes, that's allowed. States attorneys and public defenders offices are not funded at parity, and there is nothing that requires them to be. In some places, there are no state-funded public defenders. There are, perhaps, county-funded PD offices or a small publicly-funded compensation available to private attorneys who have agreed to accept appointments to the defense of indigent defendants.

In 2007, Cook County criminal courts handled 28,000 new criminal cases each year. Although most cases clear the system in less than a year, not all cases do. The average bond hearing in Cook County lasts less than 30 seconds. Our court-watching program discovered that several times a day in bond court, the State's Attorney or the Public Defender (or both) misidentified the defendant standing before the court. Nobody can do good work at that volume. If you're sitting in the courthouse from 8:30am to 2:00pm each day, when are you talking to your client? When are you researching the facts of his case? When are finding witnesses? When are writing motions which will properly preserve issues for appeal?

Private criminal defense attorneys have it marginally better. They still get different versions of the police reports. They still have to defend a person who is in jail while they're preparing their case and therefore not always easy to reach and not fully able to provide their attorneys information necessary to a good defense. Seriously. You're in prison. Can you recite the names and several phone numbers of all the people who might be useful to talk to figure out what happened? Who might be helpful in getting you released on bond? Now, imagine you don't have a spouse or a mom who can look that information up on your behalf for the attorney. Now, imagine those people use pay as you go cells and might not have the same number day to day.

In the end, only attorneys at firms who take on only a few rarefied criminal cases really are able to dedicate sufficient resources to ensuring someone honestly gets a fair trial. They're the ones dealing with cooperative defense witnesses, who can intimidate the police into turning over every bit of evidence, who can make a judge think for a moment that they might actually be as important as the judge in this proceeding.

And then, even highly paid private attorneys can't make up for the fact that juries assume the "system" wouldn't let a case get all the way to trial is the guy wasn't guilty because what a waste of money if he was acquitted--no matter how many times the judge or high school civics tells them to the contrary. Or that judges know all sorts of information about the defendant that is never presented at trial and wouldn't be admissible if it were offered at trial. They know that's not supposed to affect their rulings, but they're fooling themselves if they think it doesn't.

Then what happens after conviction is only more depressing and screwed up. I don't even know how to fix it.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:32 PM on June 25, 2011 [32 favorites]

odinsdream the first comment in the article questioned whether Roy Brown was even real.
posted by geekyguy at 12:33 PM on June 25, 2011

How do two men, both convicted of federal crimes get such vastly different sentences?

To be clear, robbery is not a federal crime.
posted by dhartung at 12:36 PM on June 25, 2011

I wish there was more to read here than an article.
posted by mek at 12:48 PM on June 25, 2011

To be clear, robbery is not a federal crime.

Bank robbery is.
posted by Kalthare at 12:48 PM on June 25, 2011

"The 40-month sentence for Paul R Allen, 55, of Oakton, VA., is slightly less than the six-year term sought by federal prosecutors."

hippybear: Slightly less? It's less than 2/3 of the 6-year term. It's nearly only half of the sentence.

That's the fun of using different measurements of time! Why say 72 months when you can say six years?

But chances are, the maximum sentencing was listed in years, and the negotiations resulted in a sentence of 40 months. It's awkward to say "3 1/3 years time," and either the writer was lazy and didn't think about the actual reduction of time, or some rep from Paul R. Allen's defense team told the press he'll be serving "slightly less time" than the federal prosecutors were pushing for, and the paper ran with it.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:09 PM on June 25, 2011

I saw this on Reddit the other day; the top comment suggested the image isn't telling the whole story about the CEO's case:
This is highly misleading.

Lee B. Farkas was the "mastermind", not the CEO. The CEO also cooperated with the government against Farkas.

Farkas is expected to get LIFE IN PRISON.

sources -

EDIT - Oh, and according to his plea agreement the CEO has to forfeit everything he gained from the fraud. The feds are also seeking 30.7million from Farkas.

sources -
posted by Rhaomi at 2:28 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

filthy light thief: Right, I get all that. But my point is, the reduction in sentence is HUGE, no matter how you slice it. Granted, starting from six years is a pretty tiny amount compared to the other guy's 15 years... But the spin on how long he'll be serving is a great example of how much this system is tilted in favor of the one guy and against the other.

If the black man who stole $100 had received an equivalent reduction in sentence, he'd be serving 99 or 100 months, which is just over 8 years.
posted by hippybear at 3:09 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jesus christ, man, don't confess!

I mean, don't rob banks, either. But if you do, don't go to the police and confess. That's not doing yourself any favors.
posted by ryanrs at 4:32 PM on June 25, 2011

It only just occurred to me to do the math, but if one of these sentences is fair then either Paul R. Allen should have been sentenced to 450 million consecutive life sentences or Roy Brown should have been sentenced to 3.46 seconds in jail.
posted by johnofjack at 3:08 PM on June 26, 2011

I'm not sure the amount stolen should have much of a bearing on the sentence. There has to come a point where the numbers become largely meaningless. If the CEO had only stolen $1b, is that only one-third as bad as stealing $3b? Or is there some sort of logarithmic scale? If the bank robber had taken $30, or $300, or $3000, does that change that he threatened another human being with what they believed was a deadly weapon?

To be clear, I think 15 years is a travesty, especially for somebody who turned themselves in, and especially for somebody who stole because there was no social safety net. But that can be argued on its merits, without reference to the amount stolen, and without having to resort to comparisons with somebody who stole a bajillion dollars.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:16 AM on June 27, 2011

I sacrificed clarity removing the profanity and not replacing it with something more eloquent. What I meant was that both sentences seemed exceedingly unfair to me.

We could, if we wanted, compare Brown's fate with that of the homeless white guy who stole one dollar, threatening the cashier with an also nonexistent gun, and who is being charged with larceny rather than bank robbery.

Of course there are all sorts of differing factors among the cases--locations, perpetrators, lawyers, police, judges; it's not exactly a controlled experiment--but it's hard to deny the influence of systemic racism.
posted by johnofjack at 5:43 AM on June 27, 2011

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