Divided sentiments over fitting punishment for webcam spying

In her view, the case unearths the ugly prejudices that many people harbor deep down but try to disguise.

She says Ravi went to elaborate lengths to set up the webcam to catch Clementi, so his transgression can’t be dismissed as a mistake in the heat of the moment. Ravi’s youth is no excuse either, she says. “Eighteen is not a kid,” she says. “He’s old enough to vote and join the Army.”

But many others see little value in sending Ravi to prison. Some argue a serious dose of community service would teach a lesson to a young man of privilege who was quick to make fun of someone different.

Perhaps he should help in homeless shelters, anti-bullying programs, or groups devoted to gay rights, they say. On May 14, hundreds of supporters rallied at the New Jersey State House in Trenton, protesting possible jail time for Ravi.

Many parents shudder in fear that their own children’s dumb missteps—recorded forever by eMails, tweets, Facebook, and YouTube, and amplified by the viral fury of the internet—could quickly ruin their lives.

Some even point to studies that show that the adolescent brain is not fully developed, and areas that govern impulse control are among the last to mature.

Bob Corcoran, a Rutgers parent, grandfather, and family lawyer in Hackensack, N.J., falls in that camp.

When he first heard the allegations against Ravi, Corcoran’s gut reaction as a father was that “this guy should go to jail forever.” But after considering the case more professionally, Corcoran says, he decided that incarceration would likely make Ravi even more aggressive. Prisons have been called breeding grounds for hate.

“He’ll say, ‘This is it, I’m a convicted felon, what are my chances for doing anything with my life? I might as well sell heroin or steal a car,’” Corcoran says. “As horrible, heinous and abhorrent as this guy’s conduct may have been, I don’t think jail time would be a deterrent to people who do stupid things.”

Even more, looking deep in his heart, Corcoran says he’s made mistakes that he’s ashamed of. “I don’t want to go through some of the stupid things I did when I was 18,” Corcoran says. “The penalty this kid is looking at far exceeds what he did.”

New Jersey’s 2002 hate crimes law enhances the severity of any violations that are found to be motivated by bias. Since the verdict, Ravi’s lawyer has asked the judge for mercy—to overturn the verdict, grant a new trial, or downgrade the convictions on grounds that Ravi’s transgressions were not violent.

But Middlesex County First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure countered that Ravi, now 20, should go to jail. In her May 10 sentencing memo to the judge, she quoted instant messages Ravi typed from his home in Plainsboro, N.J., about 12 to 16 hours after learning his roommate had probably committed suicide.

“How can I convince my mom to let me go back Friday night and get drunk,” Ravi wrote to a friend.

McClure wrote that Ravi had done nothing to show his mind-set had changed from the “callous” and “arrogant attitude” shown in those chats.

Ravi has told reporters he “didn’t act out of hate” and “wasn’t uncomfortable with Tyler being gay.” Ravi’s friends recently wrote to the judge that the defendant was a helpful, caring guy, but they did not testify at the trial where they would have been cross-examined.

Some argue against stiffer sentences for bias crimes. James B. Jacobs, a New York University School of Law professor, says the Ravi case “looks miles away from the kind of image pictured when people advocated these laws and thought they were targeting horrific, vicious members of neo-Nazi groups. This looks like an ordinary person in an ordinary stupid conflict.”

Further, he says, it makes no sense for one person’s injury to deserve more of a punishment than another’s. “The last thing we need in this society is the fight about the worthiness of different kinds of victims,” Jacobs says.

Supporters of increased sentences for bias crimes, however, argue they send a message of zero tolerance and underscore the horrors of bloodshed from bigotry.

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