Friday, December 18, 2015

Two Years in Prison

I have been reading recently about a couple of criminal prosecutions in the New York area.  The nature and severity of the offenses were very different -- a career of political corruption versus a stupid decision to carry a handgun that resulted in an injury to the man who carried it -- but the punishments were almost exactly the same.


Joseph Spicuzzo

Spicuzzo was for many years the sheriff and Democratic political boss in Middlesex County, the second largest county in New Jersey.

According to people in the county, he took care of himself very well.  There were reports that he raffled off good-paying jobs -- $10,000 in 1994 would get you hired as a sheriff's investigator; the rate had risen to $20,000 by 2007.  Promotions cost extra, and there of course were requirements to support party favorites with campaign lawn signs and contributions, and to do yard word at leaders' homes.

In 1997, a Jersey paper published an extensive report concluding that Spicuzzo "manipulated his office into a self-serving domain."

Fourteen years later, a state grand jury indicted Spicuzzo on charges that he accepted $112,000 in bribes over 12 years.  (Remember, Spicuzzo had been at it for many years longer than that.)

Spicuzzo pleaded guilty to accepting $25,000 in bribes.  He gave up his pension and was sentenced to nine years in prison.  Many in Middlesex believe that there are still sheriff's officials in Middlesex who got their jobs by paying off Spicuzzo; they refused to acknowledge this in the state's investigation.

Now, after two years spent not in the general prison population but an Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, Spicuzzo is being let out -- not paroled but allowed to go home and submit to regular supervision.  (Earlier, he was denied parole because he still blamed his crimes on others.)

His lawyer said the man is in bad shape.  He is legally blind and has had a stroke.  Now 70 years old, all Spicuzzo wants is "to see his grandchildren," according to the lawyer.

A nine-year sentence for 20-plus years of government corruption by a public official seems light to me.  To cut it down to two years is hard to understand, whatever his health.  I am not aware of similar compassionate treatment offered to other people in the general prison population.

I have no sympathy for Spicuzzo

Plaxico Burress

Plaxico Burress is -- or at least was -- a talented NFL player credited with catching the winning touchdown pass in the New York Giants' Super Bowl defeat of the New England Patriots in 2008.

That fall, Burress and his wife spent an evening at a club in New York City.  Burress made two stupid mistakes that night.  He unwisely carried a loaded gun tucked into the waistband of his pants, and he accidentally shot himself in the thigh.

He was charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon; a recently enacted New York law had set the penalty for such an offense at 3.5 years in prison.

As the case dragged on, Burress was released by the Giants.

Like Spicuzzo in Jersey, Burress accepted a plea deal -- two years of prison in his case -- and started his sentence as the 2009-10 football season was getting started.

Unlike Spicuzzo, Burress served all but three months of his prison term, during which period his wife gave birth to their second child and he missed two more football seasons.   One assumes that, like Spicuzzo who wanted to see his grandchildren, Burress would have preferred to be home with his children.  But no such luck.

The New York prosecutor said Burress' sentence was in line with all prosecutions of people carrying illegal guns in the city, but there is reason to believe the claim was plain false.

Two years later, in 2011, fewer than half the defendants who had been arrested for illegal possession of a loaded gun in New York City received a state prison sentence, according to an analysis of criminal justice statistics by the mayor’s office.

I will concede that Burress made mistakes, but I think his prison term was excessive under the circumstances.


New York and New Jersey are different states, of course, and their justice systems are different.  But even so, it is difficult to compare an effective two-year sentence for decades of public corruption with a two-year sentence for stupidly carrying a gun and injuring only yourself.

One offender was a white crook, and the other was a black celebrity.  I don't know if race made the difference or if prosecutors have way more latitude than they should.

When you get right down to the facts, Plaxico Burress has done far less harm in his life than Joseph Spicuzzo has done in his.  You wouldn't know it, though, from the treatment they received.

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