David R. Henderson  

Preach What You Practice

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Does tribalism breed extremism... How Much Pee in Your Pool?...

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Using a borrowed credit card, the blonde Caroline Biden set up an unauthorized customer account at Bigelow Pharmacy on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, and racked up the six-figure bill over the course of a year, according to a criminal complaint that does not name the victim card owner.

As part of a plea deal before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Kevin McGrath, Biden, 29, pleaded guilty to one charge of grand larceny and another of petit larceny and agreed to make restitution of $110,810.04.

If she pays everything back and keeps her nose clean, she can return to court and enter a substitute plea to a lower, misdemeanor charge of petit [sic] larceny and be sentenced to two years probation.

But she'll stay out of jail even if she fails to live up to the plea deal, instead getting sentenced on the felony larceny to five years probation.


This is from Rebecca Rosenberg, "Joe Biden's niece dodges jail after $100K credit card scam," New York Post, June 9, 2017.

When I read this, I was momentarily outraged. Caroline Biden should have gone to jail, I thought, as many less politically connected people would likely have done in her place. But then I thought about it a minute and realized that she is, after all, being required to compensate the victim, although it's not clear whether she owes interest, which she should. And by not putting her in jail, the judge is saving money for us taxpayers and giving her the chance to make money to pay the victim. Isn't that better than jail?

I still felt outraged, but realized that my outrage had shifted.

It's not that Ms. Biden has been treated too leniently. Maybe a little too leniently. First, as noted, it's possible that she's not required to pay interest. Second, surely there was some hassle cost for the victim that should be compensated. Still, the remedy seems much closer to a just, and efficient, remedy than the one of charging hapless taxpayers for her room and board.

No, my outrage is over the fact that so few other people get this more-efficient and more-just treatment. Joe Biden has been an advocate of a lot of lock-em-up laws. I would bet--call it a hunch--that he is happy that his niece is not going to jail.

So what he practices--or, at least, what the court system practices--for his niece is a relatively just and efficient system. So let's have the court system and politicians preach what they practice.

UPDATE: A friend pointed out on Facebook that I have ignored some of the literature on optimal penalties. It's true. I wrote this too fast. My main point, though, which still stands, is that for such crimes, prison is probably not a good use of resources. We can get deterrence with restitution plus a large penalty; some of the penalty can be paid to the victim.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Thomas writes:

It's a mistake to call the kind of treatment given Caroline Biden more efficient and more just. Missing from your argument is the two-fold effect of a prison sentence: it keeps criminals off the street and it sends a clear message that crime will not be tolerated. Restitution is necessary (where feasible), but not sufficient. I am quite satisfied that putting criminals in prison helps to reduce the rate of violent and property crime (see this: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2014/11/11/crime-revisited/). So if Joe Biden is indeed a lock-em-up kind of guy (which I doubt), that's about the only thing he has going for him, in my view. And I wouldn't want to deprive him of credit for having one constructive political stance.

Jon Murphy writes:

I'm glad you posted this. My reaction at reading the article was originally outrage at the system for not treating her harsher, but you're right: this is a more just punishment. It makes the offended party whole.

Matthew Moore writes:

The special treatment is more outrageous than the usual punishment.

Even if the former only happens once, and the latter happens thousands of times, this is corruption of the rule of law and is poison to a free society.

Everyone restitution > everyone imprisoned > Biden imprisoned & others restitution > Biden restitution & others imprisoned.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Do we actually have any real evidence this has anything to do with political connection and isn't merely the result of normal (and sometimes large) variation in sentencing?

Also did anyone else find the use of the descriptor "blonde" really jarring. I mean I recognize being blonde isn't a protected class like race, religion etc.. but it seemed a little extreme to be pushing the stereotype that hard.

Then again maybe I'm missing some context as the link to the original article isn't working for me.

Steve Y writes:

There are financial aspects other than interest to consider. Would Ms. Biden qualify for an unsecured loan from a bank? If not, did she post collateral or did she have a guarantor? How different is this situation from a commercial obligation? (I tried to click through the link to see if these questions were answered but couldn't,)

Steve Y. writes:

Perhaps we should curb our enthusiasm over scaling up this arrangement to the general population.

There are financial considerations besides interest. Would Ms. Biden normally qualify for a $111K unsecured bank loan? If not, did she post collateral or did she have a guarantor? Would this obligation stand as an arms-length commercial transaction?

The NY Post article may have the answer: "Caroline’s father, James Biden Sr., is the financier brother of the vice president." "Financier" is a classier way of saying rich, I suppose, and dear old dad may be backing his daughter.

ColoComment writes:

This old-enough-to-know-better woman used someone else's credit card. She made and failed to pay unauthorized charges OVER THE COURSE OF A YEAR.
This was not a sudden impulse crime, like a one-time shoplifting of a lipstick when caught short of a dollar bill in her wallet.
This was conscious, intentional and repetitive fraud & theft over a long length of time.

Your link dead-ended for me, so here's the article.
http://nypost.com/2017/06/09/joe-bidens-niece-dodges-jail-after-100k-credit-card-scam/

Did you read the whole thing? This was not Caroline's first run-in with the legal system. This chick's got issues.

Note that nothing tells us what she was buying during that year that she spent over a hundred grand on. Drugs, I presume.

She's got a history of being softly treated by the legal system, and she's been through rehab several times -- how is another gentle hand-slap going to change anything in her life?
Do we need to quote the Einstein aphorism about insanity?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas,
Missing from your argument is the two-fold effect of a prison sentence: it keeps criminals off the street and it sends a clear message that crime will not be tolerated.
But there are other ways of achieving the clear message: restitution plus a large penalty.
I am quite satisfied that putting criminals in prison helps to reduce the rate of violent and property crime (see this: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2014/11/11/crime-revisited/).
Me too. I didn’t see that she was violent.

john hare writes:

I have had a few encounters with people that are supposed to pay restitution. It's a joke in bad taste as the restitution hardly ever gets paid. Apparently it is a box that the judge has to check even with people that will never pay. One was a guy supposed to pay me restitution after he gets out of prison seven years later.

If she could afford restitution, why is she doing the scams in the first place? Rich relatives are a get out of jail free card? I don't know the proper fix in our justice system, but I don't see this as being it.

Restitution seems to be paying back that which you are caught stealing, with little reference to that which you got away with. If someone steals from you on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and gets caught with the Friday proceeds, then restitution suggests that they keep the other proceeds from the first four days in which they were not caught.

Restitution may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for punishment. It tends to assume that this is an isolated incident. After having thieves steal some of my stuff on a few occasions, I tend to not feel lenient. The damage goes far beyond the face value of the stolen trucks and tools.

Don Dale writes:

If the consequence for theft is restitution of the stolen property, then the expected value for the thief is always positive unless apprehension and conviction are certain. I agree that restitution should be part of the punishment, but it's not enough, in general.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Don Dale,
If the consequence for theft is restitution of the stolen property, then the expected value for the thief is always positive unless apprehension and conviction are certain. I agree that restitution should be part of the punishment, but it's not enough, in general.
I agree. See my update.

Thomas Lee writes:

Restorative justice, in which the offender meets the victim for dialogue and negotiation, claims higher rates of restitution than reliance on the traditional court system. See, for example: https://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/restoringjuvenilejustice.html

This might just be true. An impersonal court exerts little moral suasion on offenders. A victim can be much more effective in this regard, citing chapter and verse about how devastating crime is.

S.C. Schwarz writes:

Is anyone surprised that the law doesn't apply to important progressives after, for example, the way Bill, Hillary, and Teddy Kennedy got away with murder, literally in Teddy's case?

Jay writes:

I agree more after your update, though thinking politically and a law passed with these white collar crimes coming with a penalty instead of jail time...what happens when you can't pay the penalty or the restitution? Wouldn't this be seen as a way to pay your way out of jail?

While you could argue the lack of difference in paying in time versus paying in money, it gets a little muddier when you have rich connections and someone else can finance your penalty as it looks like in this case unless I'm mistaken.

mm writes:

might be more sympathetic if this wasn't the 1st time the Biden family got breaks the rest of us wouldn't

Tionico writes:

The Biblical punishment prescribed for theft when caught and convicted is to restore FOUR TIMES the damage to the victim. If one repents of their theft and confesses, the penalty is only twice the damage.

If LIttle Miss Biden were to be treated honourably, she would owe the VICTIM of her crime (theft) about $440K, NOT only $110K.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tionico,
2 to 4 times sounds like the right ballpark. Thanks for the biblical reference. I had not known that.

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