Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison this week for running a criminal enterprise. In his sentencing Judge Nancy Edumunds argued that given his history (the charges went back to his tenure as a state legislator) and given the status of the city, he deserved the sentence he received–the harshest sentence possible for a public official.
In my book, I spent a chapter on Kilpatrick and on Detroit. My family supported Kwame in the general election (my father grew up with his parents and spent some time with them in the Shrine of the Black Madonna) and I attended two inaugural events when he was first elected. The first was a black tie event for donors, the second was a party at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History held for 20- and 30-somethings.
I wrote about that party and about Kwame’s status as the “hip-hop mayor”, before digging into an analysis of his decisions, of his budget, and then of his case.
But there was an anecdote that I didn’t write about.
At the inaugural some of my friends who’d supported him were already grumbling that Kwame wasn’t treating them right vis a vis contracting decisions and policy decisions. I pulled one of them aside, one of my fraternity brothers I’d known for almost a decade at that point. “All you have to do is give the city service. And she will pay you back. With whatever you want. But you have to give the city service first. Help Detroit…and Detroit will help you.”
I wasn’t directing this advice to Kwame. But I easily could have. All he had to do was give the city service. And he would’ve eventually received whatever it is he wanted.
This brings me to Briggs argument.
Briggs argues that Kwame’s sentence is a waste of resources (with inflation it’ll probably cost $1 million in prison costs to house Kwame), that it is a sign of how prison sentencing is out of control, and that it is inefficient (it doesn’t allow Kwame to pay back his debt in a way that aids victims; a shorter sentence will likely have the same effect on Kwame and perhaps on other public servants). His bottom line:
Thinking differently about how we punish white collar criminals—including public servants—would be in keeping with the larger move toward sentencing reform. In the realm of drug offenses, for instance, even conservatives think that “swift and certain” sanctions for nonviolent drug crimes are a better punishment than years in the clink. And white collar offenders like Kilpatrick have skills that will absolutely go to waste behind bars. (Hey, he did manage to bring the Super Bowl to Detroit.)
Taking another direction, some also argue that Kwame is being punished because he was black, and that he wouldn’t receive this sentence were he white. Or a Bank of America executive rather than a mayor.
And finally a few people noted on FB that it wasn’t like Kilpatrick killed anyone.
Briggs arguments are strong, as is the argument that there are a whole lot of private actors who’ve gone scott-free over the past several years–the federal government has treated bank executives who willingly put the world at risk with kid gloves. Indeed even though I think Kilpatrick’s sentence is fair, the only thing that gives me pause is the fact that in the grand scheme of white collar crime he is the equivalent of a dime-bag dealer getting the book thrown at him.
Why does it only give me pause though?
Because I believe public servants like Kilpatrick, and white collar criminals like those in Wall Street, commit far more damage given their roles, than violent criminals. Violent criminals “age out”–the likelihood of committing a violent crime drops significantly with age. Furthermore many of their crimes affect individual families. Finally these crimes are often committed under very specific circumstances–they are either crimes of passion, or crimes of war (here I include most gang-related crimes). If anyone should get short sentences, it should be violent criminals, who are unlikely to commit violent crimes when they are in their 30s and 40s.
Concomitantly if there’s anyone who should be given long sentences it should be people like Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick’s crime was not committed against a single family, but against a city. A city that placed its faith in him. He reproduced and spread a culture of corruption that he was elected to reject. He didn’t do so under conditions of emotional distress, or under conditions of war. Thinking about Kilpatrick in this way he isn’t akin to the dime-bag dealer, but to the police officer convicted for serial brutality.
I do wish that others involved in the fleecing of Detroit would receive or even just attention–in the book I argued that focusing on Kilpatrick’s illegal conduct obscures the quasi-legal conduct that’s become par for the course among public servants. While we wax on about Kilpatrick Detroit is in the throes long term neoliberal rebuilding experiment. But it is possible to both acknowledge that Kwame and other public officials are receiving undue scrutiny compared to Wall Street executives and still believe they should be held to a high standard given their responsibilities. In this case we shouldn’t be fighting to reduce Kilpatrick’s sentence to fit those of other (white) public servants/private executives.
We should be fighting to increase the sentence these other individuals receive so as to match Kilpatrick’s.