Martha Stewart's five-month jail sentence is likely to be debated for years.
Was the punishment, which also includes a five-month house arrest, two years' probation, and a $30,000 fine, too lenient, perhaps evidence that the rich get off more easily? Or was it too tough, given the nature of the crime and the fact she is a first- time offender?
It is a debate that frequently rages when a celebrity, a wealthy businessperson, or a political leader gets convicted of a crime. Critics of the criminal justice system point to the fat wallets of white-collar felons, who sometimes end up with electronic bracelets around their ankles while they shuffle around their homes in slippers. Defenders of the system claim that judges are actually harder on white-collar types, who often don't get the proverbial "second chance" no matter who is defending them. This argument is likely to resonate in other high-profile trials, such as those of Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Kenneth Lay, former head at Enron.
"There is no doubt that the justice system has never found a way to even the field when some lawyers are better than others and some defendants have more money to hire them," says Larry Soderquist, a lawyer with the firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Nashville, Tenn.
The issue of equality before the law is one of the reasons Congress formed the US Sentencing Guidelines Commission in 1987. The commission formulated the current sentencing standards, which take some discretion away from judges.
Moreover, Attorney General John Ashcroft has been particularly adamant that white-collar criminals serve time in jail. "In fairness to Ashcroft, [jail time] has largely been the position of the Department of Justice for a number of years on the theory that for white-collar offenders, the prospect of prison or seeing their peers go to prison acts as a form of deterrence," says Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor, now a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Boston.
This legal theory has been enforced even more in the wake of corporate scandals, says Mr. Soderquist. "The world changed with the Enron debacle, and [Stewart] got caught up in it," he says. "The [Securities and Exchange Commission] is even more aggressive with any white-collar crime."
In fact, Herb Hoelter, Ms. Stewart's sentencing consultant, who advises a number of nonviolent offenders, finds that nonwhite- collar defendants often get a "second chance."
"I think the judges are tougher on white-collar criminals," he says. …