Fit the crime

Former Nevada lobbyist Harvey Whittemore remains free as his conviction winds its way through the appeals process in the federal court system. He was convicted on three counts of violating campaign contribution limits by using beards to get around the limits. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have thrown much of federal election law into doubt, so it is conceivable that the laws under which Whittemore was convicted could be overturned, invalidating his convictions.

But our concern today is one that has been with us since his sentencing. Whittemore drew two years in prison, 100 hours of community service, and $100,000 in fines.

The fines and community service are not a problem, in our view. What is a problem is the prison time, and it goes far beyond this particular case. Our society uses prison in ways that challenge good sense, productive penology, and sometimes sanity. Prisons are loaded with nonviolent offenders when there exist ways of punishing that would benefit us all.

As of March 18 of last year, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons put the average cost of a federal prisoner at $28,893.40. There are currently 217,001 federal prison inmates. The number of prisoners in state facilities and their cost is more difficult to ascertain, but the reader can get a pretty good picture from the fact that the total prison population in the United States is over 1,500,000. And get this—most of them are nonviolent.

Some states have been reducing their prison populations by finding different ways of punishing nonviolent offenders. And when a case as visible and highly publicized as the Whittemore case ends in a sentence like this, it send a powerful message that prison time is still an acceptable way of dealing with nonviolent offenses—even, as in this case, first time offenses.

When Judge Larry Hicks sentenced Whittemore, he used language that was more akin to that of the district attorney he once was—here in Washoe County, in fact—than of an impartial judge, suggesting that he needs to make a better adjustment to his current role.

“The evidence shows black and white where the money came from, from Mr. Whittemore to his friends and family and employees all for the purpose of them making phony contributions to Harry Reid,” the judge said, which is true, and—if the verdict is upheld—certainly calls for punishment. But in punishing Harvey Whittemore, where are the sentencing guidelines that say the taxpayers must be punished at the same time?

All over the United States there are deeds needing doing, from soup kitchens to failing infrastructure. Nonviolent offenders have hands with which to do them, and taxpayers would benefit instead of paying. Two years in prison, Judge Hicks said, when he could just as easily said two years in community service.

It’s time to stop thinking of punishment only in terms of warehousing.