A Superior Court judge who sentenced a wealthy du Pont heir to probation for raping his 3-year-old daughter noted in her order that he “will not fare well” in prison and needed treatment instead of time behind bars, court records show.
Judge Jan Jurden’s sentencing order for Robert H. Richards IV suggested that she considered unique circumstances when deciding his punishment for fourth-degree rape. Her observation that prison life would adversely affect Richards was a rare and puzzling rationale, several criminal justice authorities in Delaware said. Some also said her view that treatment was a better idea than prison is a justification typically used when sentencing drug addicts, not child rapists.
A lot of people are furious about the sentence handed down in this case, not to mention the language used to justify it. And I understand their shock and their outrage. But I don’t share it.
As someone who advocates for a more restorative approach to justice, it seems to me that a prison sentence in this case isn’t accomplishing anything other than punishment. And, given the details of the offense, the judge is almost certainly right that the offender would not fare well in prison. He’d likely be savagely beaten, raped, murdered … or all of the above. He might be put in protective custody in prison, but that would mean solitary confinement all day every day for the duration of his sentence which is, I think, a form of torture.
Of course, this is precisely what some people want: Offenders ought to be made to suffer in prison. The virtue of that suffering is the suffering itself; we are outraged by the offense and we want to pay back the offender in kind. That, for a great many people, is the whole point of prison. It’s why people complain about anything from prisoners’ access to educational opportunities, to television privileges, and to three square meals a day. If you’re watching tv or taking a correspondence course, you’re obviously not suffering enough for the offense that landed you in prison.
For my part, I think we’d do better to think about steps we can take to right the wrong that occurred and to ensure that it isn’t repeated. Of course, it’s clear that society needs to be protected from dangerous offenders and so, in some cases, probation would be completely inappropriate; this doesn’t appear to be one of those cases. But in case my reading of the situation is incorrect and this offender presents a potentially ongoing danger, the judge has mandated treatment (both inpatient and then outpatient) and has ordered the offender to stay away from children. Failure to comply will surely result in a prison sentence.
What remains, then, is an attempt to right the wrong or respond to the harm that has been done. In cases where an offender is sentenced to prison, the public feels that justice has been done and we can all move forward. But there’s absolutely no line drawn for us between a prison sentence for the offender and righting the wrong experienced by the victim … because there really isn’t any immediate connection between those two things and because we don’t spend a whole lot of time considering the needs of victims.
Restorative justice isn’t about leniency for offenders; it’s about discovering and attempting to meet the needs of victims while encouraging offender accountability. It’s just not clear that lengthy prison sentences under the worst possible conditions accomplishes either of those things.
I completely understand the gut feeling that something terrible ought to happen to a person who harms a child; as a father myself, I’m disgusted and outraged by this man and what he did to his children. But that doesn’t mean we ought to turn that feeling into policy, especially if doing so accomplishes nothing more than making the public feel good about getting vengeance. Taking out our collective wrath on offenders doesn’t necessarily do anything to help their victims, nor does it automatically lead to offender accountability. Working to accomplish those things, rather than to sate our desire for vengeance, would likely result in a radical change in the way we think about justice and punishment, and the way we respond to crime.
LTMC: With stories like this, I find that people often have difficulty separating two issues: inequality of outcomes versus the qualitative justice of each outcome.
It is unjust that poor sex offenders typically get thrown to the wolves in prison, while a rich sex offender is given treatment and probation because he “won’t fare well” in prison. Wealth shouldn’t dictate the kind of justice a person receives. That’s an inequality of outcomes that everyone can agree is unfair.
The question remains, however, of how outcomes should be equalized. The knee-jerk reaction to this situation is that this guy escaped a well-deserved stint in the punitive hellscapes America calls prisons. But sentencing a person to eternity in a concrete hate factory is not necessarily the right result, for all the reasons Prof. Kohen stated above.
There are ways that we can deal with serious sex offenders that don’t involve subjecting them to the absolute worst humanity has to offer—particularly since sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all violent crimes. Contrary to popular belief, many of these people are redeemable.
But what about the victims? How will they get justice unless the offender suffers commensurate to their crime? I’ll let the infamous bleeding heart hippie Winston Churchill plead my case:
The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused, and even of the convicted criminal, against the State— a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment— a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry those who have paid their due in the hard coinage of punishment: tireless efforts towards discovery of curative and regenerative processes: unfailing faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man. These are the symbols, which in the treatment of crime and criminal, mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are sign and proof of the living virtue in it.