The New York Times reports that Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years. This is the sentence that the US government had sought, and apparently the harshest sentence possible (read Jack Healy's reporting). As insurance actuaries will remind us, the 71 year old financier will likely cheat that sentence by upwards of 130 years (although not through parole. What are we to make of this, apparently largely symbolic sentence?
First, Madoff's case reminds us that the line we often draw between "violent crime" and all other forms of crime, including felony property offenses, is deeply problematic. Property, especially life savings, cannot be easily separated from physical and emotional harm, certainly not in a society that relegates the poor to misery as easily as ours. Madoff's highly deliberated and planned crimes will exact a toll on many of his victims that will take the form of illness, depression, and possibly shortened lives. When we assume that violence is ontologically different, we also create all kinds of preferences based on class and race (who has opportunities to steal without violence).
But if Madoff deserves to be punished as severely as some of our most serious violent criminals, we should also note that we tend to punish violent crime very severely in America, compared to most of our peers and to our own history. In much of Europe, ten years in prison custody for an ordinary homicide is very much the norm, with 25 or more years reserved for mass murderers and war criminals. In the US, many prisoners convicted of ordinary homicides serve 30 or more years because of risk averse parole boards.
Given that we cannot sustain our current level of social investment in incarceration, and that we cannot reduce it adequately without reviewing our long sentences for violent crime, I would favor moving our punishment for the most serious violent offenders back into line with European ranges. On that scale, Madoff deserves to serve somewhat less than a mass murderer, and somewhat more than an ordinary murderer, which brings me to 17-22 years. Still likely to be life in prison for Madoff, but some incentive for him to behave in prison.