In a United States Correctional Institution in Taft, California, Rudy Kurniawan is currently serving time. In 2014, a judge sentenced him to 10 years of imprisonment after a jury found him guilty.
Rudy sold fake wine. Vintage wine, worth millions, but still. Wine. He sold it at auctions to collectors and connoisseurs, and in doing so made millions which he spent on real wine, cars, a mansion, art, and more.*
Arguably, the only damage caused by Rudy’s actions was to people’s feelings, pride, and bank accounts. No one was physically hurt, and it’s safe to say no one felt they’d have to fear for the lives of their children if this man remained at large in society. So why is he locked away behind bars for a decade?
Because Rudy lied. He took shortcuts he wasn’t supposed to take and made lots of money in ways we as a society don’t approve of. Rudy upset us, and so he was punished.
The reason Rudy Kurniawan is serving time in prison is because we want revenge. He was ordered to pay a $20 million fine as well as $28.4 million in restitution to victims, and would have had a very hard time going back to selling fake wines after being found out. Yet despite the low risk of him doing further serious harm he was removed from society.
His case is an example of why creating a progressive justice system is such a struggle. Granted, he is the first person to ever go to jail for selling fake wine in the US, but he’s not the first to be put in prison for punishment’s sake. Some argue we imprison offenders like Rudy not out of revenge, but retribution, the difference being that it’s not personal and involves no pleasure at the suffering of others. Whichever it is, the results are less than ideal.
We send people to prison because our justice system isn’t based on creating a safer environment for the future. It’s built to make people pay for actions that uprooted the past. It’s a system based largely on emotion, not rational thought or empirical evidence. And while some argue a tough response to crime acts as a deterrence, so far the evidence is undecided.
Personally, I’d like to think it’s not out of fear of imprisonment that I do not assault my neighbour or take part in a human trafficking scheme. What it is that does stop me, but not someone else, is another discussion for another time. The point is that a lot of criminal justice policy is based on how we feel, sometimes ignoring or distorting what we know in the process.
And to an extent that makes sense. It’s only human to be upset with those who refuse to stick to the agreement, those who acquire their success by cheating, while others have to work long and hard for it. And it feels good, perhaps even right, to punish those who break the rules.
The question is, should we build our system based on what feels good? Is the justice system we want also the one that’s most beneficial to society as a whole?
The answer depends on your definition of what ‘works’. If by an effective justice system you mean the people who were hurt get some revenge and those who did the hurting get hurt themselves, then some of what we’re doing is working.
If what works is a system that ultimately diminishes the amount of damage done to people’s lives and society by them coming into contact with crime and the justice system, then we have a long way to go.
Research shows that going to prison devastates people’s lives. They lose jobs, houses and families, and upon release re-enter society at the lowest point, with no means of working their way back up. You might find it’s what they deserve. If they didn’t want to lose everything, they shouldn’t have broken the law. But they did, and so now they’re paying the price.
The problem with that train of thought is that when we imprison people, it’s actually all of us who are paying, even — or perhaps especially — after they’re released. A homeless, jobless individual with a criminal record will have a very hard time contributing anything to society and will be more likely to use services than provide any.
The difficulty with designing a just and effective justice system then, is that both those terms are open to interpretation. Is a justice system effective and just when victims and society feel morally satisfied? Or is it so when the overall amount of hurt and damage has been kept to a minimum, even if that includes hurt and damage to the offender?
Are those who fell victim to Rudy’s scam and their fellow American citizens getting a good deal paying for his stay in prison and any other services he may need after his release? Or would they be better off having Rudy contribute to society in the form of community service?
I would argue the latter. Excluding non-dangerous offenders from society doesn’t help anyone. It results in a financial burden to all tax payers, and lifelong consequences for the offender and their family, often disproportionate to the crime.
Let’s reserve our prison cells for individuals we can no longer trust with our lives. Before locking someone away, let’s ask the question: does the imprisonment of this individual create a safer society? If not, would a different sentence be more beneficial?
A progressive justice system isn’t one that favours offenders or ignores the victims. It’s not about being soft, or left-wing. It’s about being rational and focusing on the one thing our justice system should be designed to do: make society better.
*For the full story on Rudy and his wine, watch the documentary Sour Grapes.