There is a bit of a debate going on over at The Corner, the National Review’s group blog, on whether the 150-year sentence meted out to Ponzi scheme fraudster Bernard Madoff is excessive. Well, given that the man is 71 years old, it is academic anyway since he will die in the slammer. But clearly, the length of the punishment is symbolic, though the judge could be accused of grandstanding – it might have been easier simply to sentence Mr Madoff to life imprisonment and have done with it.
From a philosophical point of view, I am not sure whether such a sentence has much of an effect in deterring future fraudsters; the trouble with the notion of restituting victims of crimes, however, is that what on earth can a convict like Madoff do to pay back his victims tens of billions of dollars? If he did some kind of work until he dropped dead, it would be unlikely that he could generate a fraction of the wealth that has been taken from people. In some cases, folks lost their entire life savings. Now the snarkier folk out there might say, well, his victims were all incredibly rich so they will not suffer, but that is nonsense. Theft is theft; if you have honestly built a fortune and some shyster takes the lot, that’s a crime, period.
But there is a problem with the idea of compensating victims when the size of a fraud is this huge. I’d be interested in what commenters think might be some practical solutions.