Rich Man, Poor Man
I read of several financial professionals who were charged with securities fraud and other fraud charges during the past week. On February 25, James Nicholson of Westgate Capital Management, was charged with crimes that defrauded investors of more than $100 million. Paul Greenwood and Stephen Walsh of WG Trading Investors were arrested on fraud charges involving more than $500 million. Mark Bloom of the North Hills Fund admitted to divesting more than $10 million of investor money for his personal use. The list seems to have no end.
All of those financial professionals, presumably, were well educated people of privilege. Regulatory agencies issued their licenses that authorized them to accept investor funds. Clearly, they held positions of leadership and trust. Why, then, do laws fail to reflect a higher standard for these people of privilege than the laws that punish people who engage in less sophisticated criminal acts?
Despite the millions of dollars those white-collar swindlers stole from investors, sentencing statutes maximize the terms they would serve at 20 years. My experience suggests that, when convicted, those criminals will receive sentences that were considerably less.
I am incarcerated alongside a prisoner with a degree in economics from Princeton who converted $10 million of investor’s money to his own account and he serves four years; another neighbor who earned his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School serves three years for a Ponzi scheme that looted investor accounts of $7 million.
I am not minimizing the difficulty of any term of imprisonment, but I sense a grave injustice when I read of the wealthy receiving prison terms that dwarf the sentences of less sophisticated offenders. Justice should hold those who have advanced degrees, privilege, and positions of leadership to a higher standard than it holds those of more humble origins.
Our prison system is filled with uneducated people who were not born with the same opportunities that these white-collar offenders took for granted. Many did not finish high school and could not qualify for employment that would pay a livable wage. They did not have histories of violence or weapons, but they trafficked in drugs with other consenting adults. Their schemes were against the law, wrong, and motivated by a desire to earn an income. Punishment was in order. A great injustice occurred, however, when such people routinely suffered through sentences of 10, 20, 30, 40 years or more. That injustice was compounded when people of wealth and privilege faced terms of significantly less time.
We need a fundamental shift in the ways we measure justice in our enlightened society. A much better barometer of justice, I suggest, would not be measured in calendar years of confinement, but individual efforts to reconcile with society, atonement, and redemption.