A Ku Indeed!

Wesley Snipes and Corrective Punishment

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Values Analysis by Chris on April 24, 2008

I came across this on CNN this morning, and it reminded me of something my ethics class read and discussed not to long ago. What we looked at was the difference between Deontology and Consequentialism on punishment; generally speaking, the division is between retributive punishment (deontological) and corrective (consequentialist).

There are two main points that are in contention between the two theories:

1. Only the guilty should be punished

2. Punishment should be restricted in severity to the offense committed by the individual.

On some readings of the two theories, retribution says “yes” to both, while corrective theories say “no”. Of course, the rejection of (1) leads to all sorts of thought experiments aimed at consequentialist theories regarding railroading the innocent, and so on.

But here I’m more interested in just pointing out a CNN case of a rejection of (2) in a recent case. Here, if you read the quick article, you’ll see the Wesley Snipes, who has recently been convicted of tax evasion, may be sentenced to three years in jail, at least if government lawyers get their way.

Check out what the article says:

Federal prosecutors last week urged U.S. District Judge William Hodges in Ocala, Florida, to sentence Snipes to the maximum penalty to demonstrate to taxpayers that refusal to pay income taxes carries severe penalties.

Snipes was convicted on three misdemeanor counts of failure to file federal income tax returns.

“This case presents the court with a singular opportunity to deter tax fraud nationwide,” the government said in its sentencing recommendation.

That sounds to me like a clear case of corrective punishment, or a rejection of (2). The government is suggesting that Snipes can be used “as a tool” to effect greater utility — he can serve as a deterrent and help to get other people to pay their taxes.

Kant would not be pleased.


11 Responses

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  1. Mark said, on April 24, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    It seems to me like premise (2) is really closely tied to premise (1), and Snipes’s case points that out. Over-punishment in the case of Snipes seems almost like punishing the innocent. The government, in trying to use Snipes “‘as a tool’ to effect greater utility,” is creating a scenario where they’re saying, “We know he doesn’t deserve this punishment, but we’ve got to teach you all a lesson.” He’s innocent of any crime which would warrant three years in prison, so in a sense the innocent is being punished.

  2. Million said, on April 24, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I hate to state the obvious, but the Florida Federal Court will not be pleased when Mr. Snipes (aka “Daywalker”) shows up to take them out in “Blade VII.” In all honesty, I’m curious as to what standard they are using to ground their decision without becoming arbitrary. Precedent perhaps? Who decides when the law needs to be used to make an example and when not? Last time I checked there aren’t many laws on the books about that.

  3. Chris said, on April 25, 2008 at 7:28 am


    I know little about the law, but I do think that in this case (Snipes got the 3 years, by the way, it came out yesterday) the 3 year penalty already is on the books. So it’s not that they are punishing him beyond what the law allows. At that point, I suppose it is up to the discrecion of the judge to decide what penalty fits, within the law. The prosecutor’s argument was to use him as an effective deterent, and clearly that argument won the day.

  4. Alexus McLeod said, on April 25, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I’m inclined to agree with good old Manny Kant here, especially since federal judges seems to be extremely inconsistent in their justification for penalties. Some people (like Wes Snipes) get used as consequentialist tools, while others (like Martha Stewart) do not. If there’s going to be discrepancy of method in this way, shouldn’t there at least be some justification for this? Perhaps part of what is called for is more conformity in sentencing for judges, or more specific standards. Judicial independence can sometimes make a joke out of the system. Arguably, Martha Stewart’s actions were both more harmful and callous than Snipes’ tax evasion, but she got little more than a time-out and a slap on the wrist, while Wes is going under for three years.

  5. Bill Haines said, on April 26, 2008 at 4:17 am

    I too find it upsetting to learn (here) that Wesley Snipes is likely to go to prison for three years. When I consult my intuition, I find that he’s a lot cuter than Martha Stewart, more charming, and much more fun to watch. But after looking into the matter a little, I’m not sure anything has gone wrong here. For one thing, his crime was to steal something like $17 million. For another thing, I don’t find it obvious that his motive was less bad than Martha Stewart’s. She was sneaking around, while he was opposing the authority of the law in general. I don’t know how to compare those motives. The prosecutor’s argument might have been, not an effort to bring in a special consideration in a special case, but rather an effort to remind people of the general values of the penal law, when these were under threat in a special case because of celebrity and cuteness. What do you think?

    Incidentally, the arch-consequentialist Bentham held that punishment should be primarily for deterrence, and on that basis he argued that (1) we should not punish the innocent, and (2) punishments should be limited by the severity of the wrong. See chapters XIII and XIV here: http://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html
    He did, though, famously think there should also be corrective treatment in prison.

  6. Chris said, on April 27, 2008 at 7:45 pm


    To be honest, I don’t have any sympathy for ol’ Wes. Okay, we went to the same college, and I liked White Men Can’t Jump, but still…the guy is a serial tax evader.

    My only concern here is just to highlight the fact that the prosecutor seems to be happily endorsing the role of punishment as corrective. He seems to be suggesting that Snipes should, in fact, be singled out for the maximum because of his deterrent effect on the population, not simply because of what he did. Thinking of (2) above, I’m not sure if the offense would warrant 3 years, I’m not familiar with whether tax offenders tend to get the maximum for such offenses. If not, then is (2) being applied?

    Oh jeez, now I feel as if I’m compelled to defend Paris Hilton. Oh no.

    By the way, speaking of Bentham, I say toss Snipes into the Panopticon. That’ll show em’.

  7. Bill Haines said, on April 27, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    I see. Yes — though there’s some pretty confusing stuff going on here. He was acquitted of fraud and conspiracy, but convicted of failing to file forms on time. In the abstract one doesn’t think of that as a 3 year offense, but in the abstract one overlooks differences in the amounts of money involved. Are we not supposed to think of his failure to file as an effort to steal? I guess we’re not. But I think sentencing discretion is often used to punish people for things they haven’t been convicted of.

    We might distinguish between deterrence as a general rationale for the penal code and its particular provisions, and deterrence as a reason for a particular punishment in a particular case. I agree with you that the latter is illegitimate, and from what you quote it sounds as though this case may be a glaring example.

    Terminologically, I like to distinguish between “deterrence,” which aims to use a punishment to threaten everyone, and “correction”, which is about changing the convict. Though one effect of deterrence is presumably to deter the convict herself from further malfeasance and in that sense “correct” her.

    I suppose actors’ lives tend to argue against the theory of the panopticon!

  8. Alexus McLeod said, on April 28, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Even if one accepts that he should have received the maximum penalty in this case, however (which I don’t, because I don’t support this type of “example” corrective punishment), by that standard shouldn’t Martha Stewart have also received it, which in her case would have been 20 years (instead of a measly 5 months)? Given that the sentencing maximum is so much greater in Martha Stewart’s case, this also seems to suggest that at least by the standards of the law what she was convicted on (conspiracy, obstruction of justice. making false statements to federal investigators) is considered worse–if more time in jail called for is an indication of being a “worse” crime. Why wasn’t Martha Stewart thrown under the bus as a corrective example? My problem is not so much with the Snipes penalty but with the seemingly arbitrary standard of sentencing, based on too much judicial independence.

  9. Bill Haines said, on April 28, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    I don’t remember the details of the Stewart case. I think maybe the amount of money was relatively small for that kind of crime – $45,00? And there was some room for uncertainty about how much mens rea there was? I don’t know.

    One argument for judicial discretion is that the alternative is legislatures that pass three-strikes laws and mandatory heavy crack sentences etc. Checks and balances. The plurality of voices maybe makes for more discussion. I don’t know.

  10. Jonah said, on May 20, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I would argue that the primary goal of punishment must have been (and continue to be) corrective in nature but that retributive punishment can act as a moderating force. That is, wiping out an entire village for an offence will certainly inhibit future violations, but would not be “fair” in the “eye for an eye” sense.

    I find it interesting that corrective or rehabilitory punishment is now seen as the liberal, modern view. Two movies that aptly demonstrate how monsterous corrective punishment can be: Cool hand Luke and One flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.

    Nice to finally see your blog, btw.

  11. Chris said, on May 27, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    According to Nietzsche, punishment was once (well, when it was “nobler” in nature) merely retributive. When it declined and became more “slavish”, it took on the more corrective feel/purpose. I’m not sure if he’s right, but it’s an interesting take (in the Genealogy).

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