Divided sentiments over fitting punishment for webcam spying

The Rutgers webcam case was recently linked to this year's presidential race.

As the trial of former Rutgers University freshman Dharun Ravi riveted the nation earlier this year, there seemed to be a widespread consensus that his high-tech spying on his gay roommate was heinous and should be punished.

But when the jury convicted Ravi of bias crimes and invasion of privacy, there was little public agreement about what should happen next.

What’s a just penalty for an 18-year-old offender who seemed to have been clueless about the risk of such dire consequences?

On May 21, Judge Glenn Berman will have to make that agonizing choice, in the face of a rising chorus of calls for lenience and sentencing guidelines that presume a prison sentence of five to 10 years.

The unusual details of the crime don’t make the judge’s decision any easier.

Although Ravi was not charged in the death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi of Ridgewood, N.J., the young man’s suicide hovered over the courtroom every day, and many assumed that humiliation from exposure contributed to the 18-year-old’s tragic decision to jump off the George Washington Bridge.

In conversations in barbershops, office cafeterias, and kitchens, the case has had enormous power in sparking serious conversations about the pervasiveness of prejudice and the pain of bullying. These discussions reveal a vast spectrum of views about how to make the punishment fit the crime.

Would incarceration reflect a reasoned sensitivity to the feelings of the victim and an appropriate revulsion against bigotry? Or would it show an overreaching effort at deterrence, or even vengeance?

This quandary comes against a backdrop of growing intolerance for intolerance.

To appreciate the sea change in the public reaction to bias and bullying, consider the remarkable contrast in last Thursday’s news.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office filed papers insisting that Ravi go to jail for an incident in which there was no physical attack. That same day, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, was fending off reports that as a teenager he cut the hair off a fellow student who later came out as gay.

The assault, in which the victim was held down by a group of students, apparently was shrugged off as boys-will-be-boys behavior at the time.

Today, some want the harshest penalties for Ravi. They include A.C. Willment of Ridgewood, a 57-year-old copy editor at a legal publication. She was horrified that he destroyed potentially incriminating text messages and, she believed, showed no remorse in his two media interviews after the verdict. “I don’t believe for a second he’s sincere about feeling sorry or that he cares about anyone but Dharun Ravi,” she says.

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.

The 2009 expansion of the federal hate crimes law was named after Matthew Shepard, the gay college student was kidnapped and left to die, tied to a fence on a Wyoming ranch.

Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who heads the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families, applauded the progress in efforts to prevent mistreatment due to race, gender, or sexual identity.

“It’s very good we are beginning to recognize groups that have historically been discriminated against, how painful it can be and how overwhelming that denigration and bullying can be when it’s allowed to go on,” Coontz said. “On the other hand, it also allows us to not think through the best way to handle these kinds of crimes.”

Copyright (c) 2012, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Visit The Record online at www.NorthJersey.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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