Avoiding Prisons

At a sentencing hearing in Toronto last week, the lawyer for two theater producers, both convicted of forgery and a $400 million fraud, made a provocative plea to the sentencing judge. Rather than imprisoning the two felons, he proposed, the judge should send them on a lecture tour of 65 Canadian schools to teach theatre students about their craft, and — I’m not making this up — "avoidance of unethical conduct." They would do the latter at six universities that teach business ethics. The judge will decide in August whether to agree to this proposal, or impose the legally circumscribed 10 years of imprisonment for fraud and 14 for forgery.

One’s first reaction to the lawyer’s proposal might be a cynical smirk: what chutzpah! Yet I am one observer of the so-called correctional system who believes in alternative sentencing in the community wherever it makes sense. It does make sense — and saves many public dollars — to avoid imprisonment whenever public safety does not demand it. Some public good may be done. Sometimes, the victim's damages may be redressed. And the extreme costs of running prisons can be avoided.

The problem is that the question usually arises in cases of convicted businessmen or celebrities who have smart lawyers to pursue these alternatives. The public understandably thinks that they would be getting special treatment. If the alternative — public service in the community — was the preferred sentence in all but crimes of violence or where there are other serious reasons impeding such a course, the public would see such a general approach as wise.

Reconciliation and redress between offenders and victims, wherever and to the extent that is possible; offenders paying the institutional costs of their offense and supervision and trial; saving the costs of the prison system when they can be avoided; and useful community service as the preferred sentencing option — all these features should be the criteria in all sentencing, unless the community is endangered.

Starting such a policy with these two characters in Toronto may not make sense as a matter of PR for a good idea. But the idea is a good one that should be used widely.


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