29 June 2009
The Futility of Revenge
I heard on NPR this morning that Bernie Madoff is going to be sentenced today.
Some of his victims were interviewed, and one of them, to my mind, showed uncommon wisdom and, unfortunately, an all too common resignation. In essence, she said it didn't matter how many years Madoff serves in prison: twelve years, (the suggested sentence from Madoff's lawyers), 20 years (what most seem to think will likely be the result) or even 150 years (the prosecution's request) will not even begin to repair the damage caused by this massive betrayal.
Madoff's lawyer was also interviewed, and he said something to the effect of Madoff "beginning to show his remorse for this terrible crime." I call bullshit there. Talk is cheap. Madoff's wife has surrendered much of what they held in common, but she gets to keep $2.5 million - she won't be suffering much beyond the obvious discomfort of living with this crime for the rest of her life. It's easy to SAY "I'm sorry." It's much more difficult to actually do something to repair the damage from the wrongs we've committed.
Madoff will be in prison, likely until he dies or close to it, but who benefits from his prison term? This is the futile nature of our justice system: revenge, not reparation, is the name of the game. Bernie Madoff is not a danger to society in his present state, so prison time accomplishes little in terms of protecting society. What if we were imaginative enough to sentence Bernie Madoff to spending the rest of his life working to repay the people he defrauded? His personal fortune has already been claimed, but that's a drop in the bucket - what if we forced him to use the intellect and ability, through which he stole billions, to spend the rest of his life rebuilding some of what he stole?
This is in some ways a pipe dream, of course: you can't rebuild those fortunes in the short years Bernie Madoff has left, nor do I think it's likely anyone would trust him with the capital required to do so. But I am left questioning, once again, the wisdom of our punitive system and whether or not we can do better. It is one thing to incarcerate those who pose an actual danger to society: it is another thing to throw gasoline on the fire of bitterness by using prison to punish rather than being inventive enough to sentence criminals in such a way that they might actually begin to repair the damage they have done. Can't we do this better?
Grace & peace,