Locking Up Bernard Madoff May Advance Prison Reform

By · Saturday, February 7th, 2009

White-collar offenders ought to learn a lesson from the scandal surrounding Bernard Madoff. He admitted to orchestrating a fraud that made victims of thousands. The man ran a diabolical scheme to enrich himself and his co-conspirators. By all accounts, Madoff’s fraud ran into the tens of billions of dollars and has led at least one victim to suicide. Yet Bernard Madoff remains free on bond, living within the plush plunders of his multi-million dollar Manhattan penthouse.

Had the man been charged with selling controlled substances to consenting adults, federal agents would not have hesitated to lock Madoff in a crowded prison. That’s beside the point. Lessons white-collar offenders ought to learn from Madoff is that if they choose to come forward and cooperate before authorities discover their crimes, and if their crimes are of sufficient magnitude, they can lessen their exposure to the harsh realities that confront ordinary Americans in our nation’s unforgiving criminal justice system.

I’m sitting at a table in Taft Prison Camp beside José as I write this blog in longhand. José contemplates the lesson. José is a man who serves a two-year sentence for welfare fraud. He had been collecting food stamps and medical benefits from social services. When filing his reports, however, José neglected to mention that he had been earning wages while working as a ditch digger for cash payments in the ungodly amount of $12 per hour.

Unlike the wily and well-connected Bernard Madoff, José did not turn himself in for the heinous crime of welfare fraud. The authorities discovered Jose’s crime, however, and prosecuted him to the fullest extent of the law.

José is of Mexican heritage and doesn’t have much in the way of a formal education. His wife, Maria, now rears the couple’s two children while living in the home of a relative in a crowded house that is threatened with imminent foreclosure. Maria works as a domestic helper for a family who pays her cash, under-the-table; she also collects welfare.

José worries whether Maria should turn herself in to authorities. He worries that she, too, could face criminal prosecution. What will happen to the children?

America’s prison system packs people like José in by the tens of thousands. No one cares. Law-and-order types assert that such justice is necessary to promote respect for the criminal justice system.

Perhaps we will have more attention on prison reform when the fat cats like Bernard Madoff come in. Yet, maybe American justice will continue to grant Madoff house-arrest status. America seems to reserve its prison resources for the José’s and other ordinary offenders.

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