The Burrowing Bandit and Sentencing in America

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2009 file photo, an inmate stands at his cell door at the maximum security facility at the Arizona St
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2009 file photo, an inmate stands at his cell door at the maximum security facility at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Ariz. A new Arizona law that charges visitors to state prisons a one-time $25 fee is being challenged as unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

By Samantha McCann of The Morningside Post

Besieged with daily reports of brutal rapes, murders, and violent robberies, Americans still love stories of criminal slapstick. But the most recent episode of "America's Dumbest Criminals" ended in tragedy, not farce, exposing grotesque failures in the American criminal justice system.

Enter Shawn McAleese, the "Burrowing Bandit" who wielded a drill and a discerning palate. Over a two-month period this summer, McAleese, 44, broke into several Manhattan apartments, using them as "launch pads" to tunnel through the walls into neighboring restaurants. He would then steal everything from cash and computers to bottles of vodka -- even whole racks of ribs.

A non-violent criminal with middling taste in liquor, McAleese and his misdeeds drew snickers from media outlets across the city.

"He was a serial burglar," reported the New York Times, "with a taste for vodka, sake, pork belly, and hamburgers."

"He should have no problem digging his way out of the slammer," joked the New York Observer.

Unfortunately for McAleese, the punishment for his crime spree has become the most absurd - though least funny -- part of his story. On September 19, after being charged with eight counts of third-degree burglary, McAleese was sentenced to a maximum 56 years in prison.

Significantly longer than the average punishment handed down to rapists, murderers, and white-collar criminals, the 56-year sentence is indicative of the arbitrary and hyper-punitive nature of the American criminal justice system.

Why is McAleese's sentence so extreme? To begin with, this is not McAleese's first offense. He has served time in prison twice before for nonviolent burglaries. Additionally, each of the eight counts he was charged with carried 3.5 to 7 years of jail time. Under New York penal law, every burglary, even in the third degree, is a felony.

According to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the 56-year sentence is justified in part because crimes like McAleese's have more far-reaching effects than the immediate loss of property.

"Theft from a business doesn't end at emptying the cash register - it jeopardizes the job security of those who work there because it affects the bottom line," remarked Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

All thefts, however, are not considered equal. Many white-collar criminals steal using a spreadsheet and a few clicks of the mouse instead of drills and glass-cutters. Yet these well-heeled con men rarely get slapped with the tough punishments doled out to their blue-collar counterparts.

In perhaps the most well-known tale of accounting fraud in the U.S., former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling was charged with conspiracy, insider trading, five counts of making false statements to auditors, and twelve counts of securities fraud. Among the victims of this monstrous conspiracy were 20,000 Enron employees whose retirement accounts disappeared as the company stock they had invested in plunged by 94%. For his role in helping defraud investors of $11 billion, Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

In total, McAleese stole $23,500 in cash, along with some computer equipment, from the 8 restaurants. Even his "victims" seemed good-humored about the epicurean embezzler. Joe Gerics, general manager of "whimsical Japanese dessert bar" Kyotofu, one of the plundered restaurants, used the opportunity to plug the establishment's pastries.

"I'd love to say that he stole all of our award-winning chocolate soufflé cupcakes," Mr. Gerics told the Times. "Unfortunately this wasn't the Grand Cupcake Theft."

But most astounding when it comes to his sentence is the fact that McAleese, notes the Village Voice, could spend more time in prison than convicted murderer Joseph Pabon, who went to prison earlier this year for kidnapping and murdering a mother of three in Manhattan. Pabon was sentenced to 25 years.

Goals of incarceration range from incapacitation and deterrence to punishment and rehabilitation. Each country strikes its own balance between these elements in its quest for public order.

Evaluating equity in sentencing can be difficult because of distinct circumstances between cases. But measured from every angle, McAleese's sentence is out of proportion to his crimes. Regardless of whether McAleese serves ten years (when he's up for parole), 28 years, or the full sentence in a New York state prison, the 56-year ruling is symbolic.

It shows that the U.S. has continued to prioritize punishment as the end goal of the criminal justice system. It shows the significant disparity in sentencing between crimes committed by the wealthy and similar crimes committed by the poor. And it illustrates the capriciousness of sentencing policy in the United States.

We may find ourselves cracking a smile over these quirky criminals, amused at their audacity, charmed by their corruptibility.

But when a 56-year sentence is handed down for the theft of a few thousands dollars and some meat, it's clear that America's criminal justice system operates with anything but a sense of humor.