Today I attended a sentencing hearing for a former co-worker who had embezzled more than $120,000 from our company. I wanted to attend and speak after seeing in the newspaper that the District Attorney’s office did not intend to pursue any jail time for the crime. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to see the co-worker jailed–I really do not wish that upon anyone. It’s that it bothered me that she might do no jail time for that amount when there are countless other people in jail or prison for far lesser crimes. It seemed to me that her race and class may have had as much to do with the sentence as anything, and I felt it important to speak to that and to the impact of her crime upon our workplace.
So I prepared a three-page written statement in advance. I left two messages with the judge’s clerk asking for a return call re: what I needed to do to be scheduled to speak, but the calls were not returned. When I arrived I found the bailiff and asked if it were still possible to speak. When the Assistant District Attorney arrived she directed him to me and he agreed that I would be able to read my statement. He wanted to know in advance what I might say, but I didn’t want to share it until I had my turn to speak, so I just gave him the gist of it and let it go at that.
It turned out that the plea deal did in fact ask for a one-month jail sentence rather than no time, along with probation, restitution, and other terms, but I still felt it important that the co-worker should hear how what she did impacted others and I also wanted to speak to the court about the inequity of justice in our system. I must admit I was a bit intimidated about saying some of the things I had written in front of the judge and attorneys because I thought they might be a bit angry at me calling out the judicial system in a victim impact statement, but when I was done the judge thanked me for my “heartfelt and sophisticated” remarks, the defense attorney used the term eloquent, and the prosecutor asked to speak with me and thanked me for coming and speaking. The judge, by the way, ended up giving the defendant four months instead of the one month agreed upon in the plea deal.
This does not make me feel great. I do feel sorry for this woman and her family. I was conflicted all along about the balance between forgiveness and the need for some kind of punishment. In the end I decided to speak as much because of how unfair it would be for her to go free while others languish behind bars for victimless crimes.
Here is what I said to the court:
I stand here today as one of the many victims of the crimes of the defendant. I represent only myself and my views, although I can tell you that of the twelve employees who worked at our company when this happened at least half of them believe that the defendant should at the very least spend several months in jail, if not many years in prison. A number of them would have liked to have been here today and some of them believe that nothing less than a prison term will suffice as punishment and anything less than that will not serve as a deterrent for others either committing or considering similar crimes. We were disheartened to learn from the newspaper that the prosecution did not intend to seek any time behind bars given the exorbitant amount of money stolen. The amount in this case was more than $120,000, although authorities and our company believe that much more was likely taken. This was only the amount that the prosecution felt they could prove and that the defendant was willing to admit to at this time. Only she knows precisely how much money was taken during her tenure with the company.
Let me be clear. None of us take joy in the idea of the defendant serving time—we liked her and enjoyed working with her—but we also take no joy in seeing her released with no consequences whatsoever for what she did. Of course restitution will be ordered, but that doesn’t guarantee it will be paid and, even if it is, does not bring back the jobs of several employees who were laid off due to the supposed financial condition of the company, a condition that in retrospect was caused solely by the theft of funds by the one person entrusted with those funds. The amount of money for which she has been convicted could have kept all those employees in their jobs. In fact, the irony is that she would not have been laid off if not for her own greed and her own criminal actions. Of course she will be put on probation. If I were to steal that amount and receive probation instead of jail time I would be very thankful, and it is likely I wouldn’t learn a lesson from it, nor would anyone else looking at my case and contemplating a similar crime. Of course she will not be able to get a job in her chosen field again—she should not be allowed to handle other people’s money after this—and that is the case regardless of whether she serves time or walks away.
It is important to note that this woman did not steal to feed her children. She did not steal to clothe herself or her family. She did not steal to pay bills in order to keep a roof over their heads. While none of that would make what she did right, it would at least make it more understandable and a little more forgivable. The reality is that she did not steal because her family was destitute or in dire need. In fact they were living in a pretty suburban house, with nice vehicles, plenty of food on the table, and clothes in the closets. The family didn’t need or want, but she wanted. She stole for greed and greed only. Who wouldn’t like to have property up north that they could travel to at any time? Meanwhile, there are those who can barely afford the rent on an efficiency apartment who do not steal to get more. Who wouldn’t like to live in a family with a profusion of Christmas gifts under the tree at the holiday? She had pictures on her work computer showing stacks of boxes under their tree. Meanwhile, there are those who don’t even have a home for the holiday and who live on the streets who do not take from others. Who wouldn’t like to travel? Meanwhile, there are those who can barely afford the city bus let alone trips paid for with other people’s money. Most people who want nicer things work hard and save for them or borrow for them and pay back for years or—and this is a novel thought in an age of entitlement—they go without the luxuries and extras unless and until they can afford them.
At the time of these crimes we had an employee who was a single mother struggling to live from paycheck to paycheck while money was taken from the company and nobody got raises. We had another who needed medical attention for a heart condition and diabetes who would have liked more money to help pay for medication. We lost another great employee who took a higher paying job because we did not have the money to keep her. Despite the hardships of other employees our accountant was able to buy a boat and spend freely in other ways. The defendant stole from all of us. She took money that these people and others gave for a Christmas present for the boss, a couple dollars here and a five dollar bill there, from people who had little to spare and generously gave out of nearly empty pockets in thanks for having a job, and then she charged that gift on the company credit card. How much greedier can one get?
She also stole a part of our innocence, our belief in each other and in the essential goodness and honesty of our fellow employees and our fellow man. This cannot be made up in restitution. There is no recompense for lost faith.
So I must ask–why would the prosecution want to excuse this felony theft of well over $100,000 that left so many people hurt in its wake? I understand that the defense wants their client to be penalized as little as possible, but I question why the prosecution is okay with no time behind bars unless showing a conviction is all that matters and true justice is meaningless. Others get sent to jail for far, far less. This is a huge amount of money. It would take several years at my salary to reach this amount and that would be if I had no bills and could save every penny of what I earned. This is not a teenager shoplifting a couple hundred dollars worth of clothes. It is not someone getting caught selling two ounces of marijuana to a friend. It is a grown woman who should know better, who considered only herself and her desires, who by this time in her life should have a conscience. Yet the prosecution wants her to go free while others spend years in prison for victimless crimes.
Is it simply because this is considered a white-collar crime, which also often means that the perpetrator is white under the collar as well? Should the amount stolen and the damage it inflicted on others count less than the fact that the perpetrator is white, young, pretty, a soccer mom? Statistics show that there is a disproportionate share of African-Americans and Latinos in our prison system by an overwhelming margin. More than 50% of Wisconsin’s prison population is black although African-Americans comprise only 6% of the state’s entire population. There are countless persons of color in prison for drug crimes where they are the only victim. The defendant’s crimes were not victimless. Is this justice? Is justice not supposed to be blind to race, sex, marital status, class?
We were told by the victim’s assistance person at the district attorney’s office that a sentence with no prison time is common for this kind of crime with the criminal’s background. I would contend that it should not be common and that I have seen several prison terms for others convicted elsewhere of the same crime for much less money in the last couple of years. They also noted that this is her first crime and she is not a repeat offender. I would contend this was her first time getting caught and that a woman who steals that amount of money month after month over a five-year period is a repeat offender every time she does it. Each month that she added more money to the total amount she had already taken she was repeating a crime. Each time she stole more money she had to think about it and make a conscious decision to commit an immoral, unethical, and illegal act and she made that conscious choice countless times over a five-year period. She was, in fact, a repeat offender, from a few dollars at a time to thousands upon thousands over the course of several years. Does a bank robber get off with no jail time for robbing ten banks because the last time they did it was the first time they got caught? Does a violent criminal get a reprieve because it was their first time?
The reality is that justice is not blind. Those who move the wheels of justice often do not see the nature of the crime but the nature of the criminal. Most of us knew or felt strongly after the defendant was arrested that she would “get out of jail free” because she doesn’t look like a common criminal. We understood she would be seen as a soccer mom whose children need her and it would be so sad for her children if she went to prison. I would agree that it would be, but no more so than any other mothers currently incarcerated. Do we consider the children of African-American mothers profiled and arrested for various offenses when they are sentenced? Do we say the Latina mother at Taycheedah just made a one-time mistake when she is arrested and convicted? No? Then this defendant should expect the same treatment. We also felt people would feel sorry for her lapse in judgment and try to understand how she didn’t know how to stop, but she doesn’t appear to have even tried to stop and a lapse in judgment is a one time thing. We were certain some people would plead for leniency because she had never been in trouble before, though in all likelihood it was only that she never got caught. The fact that she started pilfering so soon after she was hired at our company makes me question what she may have done in previous positions, as it was already way too comfortable for her.
The state had ample evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt in this case. The defendant pleaded no contest because she knew that. Please keep in mind that she took more than $120,000 from a company that was already paying her a salary on which most of us would be able to live comfortably. In addition her actions cost the jobs, raises, and faith of many people. The prosecution is wrong to simply seek a judgment against her with no time served. That may net them a conviction and another notch in their belts but it does not serve the cause of justice. I urge the court to consider again the amount taken, the fact that it was taken consistently over a five-year period of time—which indicates no second thoughts and no moral compass whatsoever—and to consider the true severity of her crimes and the impact her actions had on others. I urge the court to consider a sentence that befits the crime.