by Barry Edelson
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Go to Jail, Go Directly to Jail

Term limits are not enough. What we need are mandatory prison sentences for politicians.


Pity the poor citizens of Virginia, whose roster of former governors includes the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Monroe, to have to watch the spectacle of their most recent ex-governor, Robert McDonnell, being tried and convicted for corruption. But do not pity them too much, for they elected him in the first place. Wait a minute, they might very well plead, how could we have known in advance that McDonnell was on the take? The answer is painfully obvious: there is no longer such a thing as an individual elected to higher office, or to very many lower ones, who is not guilty prima facie of some crime or another. The simple truth is that if you declare your candidacy for governor, senator, congressman or (especially) president, you are already suspect. If you win, you are almost certainly guilty.

Even as Virginians lick their festering wounds, an ex-governor of Connecticut is on trial at this very moment. New York lost a governor to a sex scandal just a few years ago. Illinois has sent half of its governors to jail for as long as anyone can remember. One recalls hearing something comparably awful about Louisiana. There have been any number of other prosecutions of governors across this great land in the past generation — too many, in fact, to remember. If we add to this list the legions of other politicians who have seen the inside of a jail cell — representatives of the United States Congress, state senators and assembly members, mayors, city aldermen and town councilwomen — we are not painting a very pretty picture. There were so many indicted members of the New York legislature on the primary ballot this past Tuesday that voters across the state could almost be forgiven for forgetting which of them are wanted criminals and which merely aspiring ones. (All but one in the former category was victorious.) The deeply held opinion that there's no such thing as an honest politician is so pervasive that hardly anyone but journalists and other politicians even pays attention to the trials anymore.

Our current governor, who, for the benefit of those who have already given up on government, goes by the name Andrew Cuomo, provides an outstanding example of the process in action. He recently disbanded a commission that he himself had empowered to investigate corruption at the highest levels of the state, including his own office, as soon as the commission actually started to do so. This has left many to wonder aloud what the governor is hiding, and simultaneously to predict that he will be re-elected in November by an enormous majority.

Instead of wringing our hands (briefly) and shaking our heads in dismay (distractedly) each time another politico is brought down, there is actually something we can do other than react like perpetual victims of the governing class. Let us instead consider this proposal: mandate a jail sentence for every elected official immediately upon leaving office. If someone wants the job that badly — and by all appearances politicians seems to want to win very, very badly — then the price of the job is a stint in the cooler. It could be as simple as this: serve 10 years in the House of Representatives, serve 10 years in the House of Detention. If we operate on the assumption that they're automatically guilty of something, we will save enormous amounts of taxpayer money on criminal investigations and prosecutions. The increase in the number of inmates would be a drop in the ocean among the vast hordes of offenders who already occupy our state and federal penitentiaries.

One can hear the objections pouring in already: (1) Wouldn't office holders feel empowered to commit even more felonies since they know they're going to jail anyway? (2) Would they not go to even more extreme lengths to get re-elected in order to forestall the inevitable sentence? (3) Would we not just end up with a colony of ex-politicians happily spending their sunset years in self-imposed exile in the Cayman Islands? (4) Isn't this just a recipe for making politics even dirtier?

Let's consider these arguments one by one.

First, the illegal actions of politicians involve mostly palm-greasing that is committed in secret, or violations of campaign finance laws that are so arcane that no one can understand them anyway. Would not the satisfaction of knowing that, come hell or high water, they're all going to be put away, more than counterbalance any concerns about a few extra uncounted millions in campaign donations disappearing into swimming pools and hair transplants?

Second, it is hard to imagine how politicians could cling to office with more shamelessness than they do already, but the point is well taken. We don't want state houses filled with codgers who plan to die in their chairs. The simple answer to this is term limits, which many states have adopted and which also applies to the presidency already. If we're going to go to the trouble of amending the United States Constitution and its counterparts in all 50 states to mandate jail sentences, term limits would be low-hanging fruit.

Third, if politicians want to retire in comfort on some island that has no extradition treaty with the U.S., so be it. The object is to get rid of them forever. Retirement at a beach resort may not be everyone's idea of justice, but imagine how painful it is for a career pol to have no one to perfect his comb-over for but his so-called family. For an office seeker, exile is more or less the same thing as solitary confinement.

Finally, would this make politics dirtier? As a matter of fact, it might very well have the opposite effect. Consider, for example, that on the day when a new president takes the oath of office, the half of the electorate that didn't vote for him already can't wait to see the back of him. The energy and passion that now goes into making the president look like a soulless, amoral deviant would be utterly wasted, since the jail term looming at the end of the presidential term would brand the Commander in Chief a criminal from the outset and take all the wind out of the sails of Washington's professional scandal-mongers. It doesn't take long for much of the country to become convinced that the president is a war criminal, or just an ordinary criminal. In the course of his or her four or eight years in the Oval Office, the president and his minions will inevitably become embroiled any number of scandals. He or she will order military operations that will result in the deaths of untold thousands. We could dispense with all of the moral acrobatics to decide whether these actions are actually criminal. The issue would have been decided in advance: President = guilty. End of discussion. And it would have the added advantage of putting a great many pundits out of work.

We might decide, for practicality's sake, to exempt certain offices from mandatory sentencing. For example, elected judges and district attorneys might prove too essential to keeping the wheels of justice turning, however slowly. Or, while we're at it, we might do away with elections for judges and D.A.'s altogether and make them civil servants. They are the ones who are actually running the government anyway, as evidenced by the fact that Social Security checks keep going out even though members of Congress haven't done any actual work themselves in years. Judges, like police officers, fire fighters, teachers and other public employees who are regularly lauded as everyday heroes and rewarded for their dedication with low pay and high disregard, are doing the jobs that keep the public sector inching forward day by day. If anyone can identify a political job that is deemed equally important to the nation, it could be considered for exemption. But don't hold your breath.

If anyone is worried about the fate of that rare public servant of integrity whose sentence will be seen as a miscarriage of justice, we will just have to write that off as the cost of keeping the government safe from politicians. No greater percentage of innocents are likely to wind up in jail than we find among the general prison population already. We should not exercise our consciences about the occasional well-intentioned individual who gets swept up in the net of political impropriety any more than our current law-and-order leaders, a large proportion of whom are lawyers and former prosecutors, bother themselves about the ordinary rabble who languish behind bars for decades only because of the actions of overzealous prosecutors and overworked and/or incompetent public defenders.

The one last hurdle we must overcome, of course, is that changing the law of the land to make this possible depends on the very politicians we so desperately wish to get their due. Who among them, you may wonder, would vote to put themselves in jail? You have clearly not been paying attention. There is nothing that craven politicians crave more than the adoration and approval of the voters. If we, the people demanded this of the powers that be, and withheld our support even for a brief moment, they would quickly jump in front of this issue and pretend to have thought of it themselves. In the pursuit of your precious vote, they will fall over one another to incarcerate themselves. If we truly believe that all politicians are vain, corrupt, self-serving imbeciles, then we must have the courage of our convictions and treat them as such. Besides, so many have been found guilty already that we might hardly notice the difference.


September 12, 2014


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