Tomorrow, Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of the Beanie Baby will be sentenced in federal court in Chicago for pleading guilty to one count of tax evasion that stemmed from hiding funds overseas. The federal sentencing guidelines call for four to five years in prison, but they are just guidelines. U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras, has the power to impose a more lenient or harsh sentence. I hope he opts for the former.
There has been great debate about the need for the United States to revamp our criminal justice system. We are unequivocally the number one most incarcerated nation on earth per capita. The issues boil down to what is an appropriate punishment for a particular crime, as well as a particular person, and what is the objective being sought.
I am particularly qualified on this subject since I once pled guilty to a crime stemming from my pathological gambling addiction and I served difficult time in federal prison. I didn't feel at any time before, during, or after my incarceration that it was the best punishment for society, my family or me. However, just because I paid my debt doesn't mean I think we should continue to paint others with the same overly broad brush.
As humans we often tend to dispense judgments about people and their behavior based upon visceral reactions. But we are costing our country untold billions of dollars not only in housing inmates, but in wasting their potential productivity.
On the surface, Warner may not strike people as the most sympathetic non-violent criminal. After all, he is a billionaire, but he still committed a crime of greed according to prosecutors. On the other hand, he has no criminal record, has paid nearly a billion dollars in taxes throughout his lifetime, is philanthropic, and is not a threat to society. In addition, his case is interesting because it stemmed from the IRS's voluntary amnesty program for Americans who hid money overseas. Warner was not offered the same opportunity as thousands of others to come forward (which he tried in 2009) because the feds were purportedly already investigating him. This isn't a rogue prosecution in the technical sense but it is a case of selective prosecution.
So what would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Warner? He is reportedly worth $1.7 billion and it appears that all of his money was made legally. Would society be better off if the judge sentenced him to perform community service for eight hours a day in an orange jumpsuit labeled "felon" and fined him a half a billion dollars -- approximately 10 times his restitution? If his crime was greed, then certainly taking 30 percent of a his net worth would seem more appropriate than putting him behind bars as if he were a threat to others.
In my proposal, society would win, but if tomorrow's sentencing is typical, then little will be gained by sending Mr. Warner away. The old deterrent factor isn't irrational, but it certainly doesn't seem to be working, at least not in the United States.
I don't think that anyone will compare Mr. Warner's fur ball empire to curing cancer. Nonetheless, that five-dollar animal is an example of the kind of creativity and innovation that thousands of incarcerated Americans might be capable if given the chance. At some point, society needs to ask what we are trying to accomplish and how much are we willing to pay just for a pound of flesh.