Imagine that an individual -- defendant Jones -- is convicted of a white collar crime -- let's say embezzlement -- and sentenced to a prison term by a federal judge in St. Louis. Mr. Jones is decidedly a low-profile person. That is, he is not known to any degree in the public, and his crime is basically back-page news.
Now, imagine further that a Mr. Smith is convicted in the same court for precisely the same crime. Unlike Mr. Jones, Smith is a high-profile individual widely known across a broad swath of the public.
Mr. Jones receives a suspended prison term in lieu of probation. Mr. Smith, conversely, is slapped with a 10-year term of incarceration.
Is there fairness in those disparate outcomes? Can they in fact be rationalized at all?
Fair or not, such sentencing discrepancy occurs routinely across the country, and certainly in white collar cases, The national publication Forbes notes that "courts can and do consider a defendant's level of notoriety as a factor weighing in favor of harsher punishment."
Here's why. There is a widespread belief that a comparatively stringent outcome for an individual in a case that is being widely followed by the public will more effectively deter other similarly minded people from engaging in criminal conduct.
But again, can a ratcheted-up sentencing disparity be justified on grounds of morality or fairness, given that it selectively punishes a select individual in an outsized way?
We suspect that legions of people in Missouri and across the country will flatly say "no."
Among the critics is the writer of the above-cited Forbes piece, who notes that notoriety has less to do with a defendant than it does with "the whims of the press corps and the Department of Justice's media operations."